Feeling the Love at the Van Wezel

Theater

BY JENA ROBUSTELLI SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAR 15, 2019

Continuing with its international tour, The Lion King opens at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall this week, running March 14–31 and performing the classic tale of the circle of life. For 22 years, the traveling production has successfully kept audiences’ favorite characters alive, in part because the performers behind the characters love them too, such as Buyi Zama, who has played Rafiki since 2003. “Rafiki is a character that I aspired to be,” she says, “She is friendly, she is wise, she’s a person who you’d like to be your friend.”

Getting into character before any kind of performance requires a great deal of skill. And since many of the Lion King main characters are nonhuman, actors’ costumes consist of different puppets and parts to help the characters come to life. For Rafiki, extended fingers are used to give the illusion of long arms and represent an ape-like figure. Where some actors get scared from extensive outfits, Zama enjoys it. “I always wished I was taller,” she says. “So, when I put the fingers on, I feel like it’s happening now.”
And while the Rafiki costume doesn’t consist of large puppet parts, those for characters like Nala and Mufasa do. For some performers, acting opposite puppets can seem a challenge but, to Zama, nothing changes. “You don’t pretend to see just a puppet or person,” she says. “you see both.” And main characters aren’t the only cast members with props and puppets, as members of the ensemble use puppets to play multiple roles, even the grassland itself or an elephant’s leg.

Since the late ‘90s, The Lion King has something fundamental to it that draws people in. Whether it’s the music, the characters or the production, fans still come to see the classic tale. “It reminds us that good always reigns over evil,” says Zama, “it’s all those good things that reassure us.”

Currently onstage at the Van Wezel, The Lion King runs through March 31.

Pictured: Buyi Zama as Rafiki in "The Lion King" North American Tour. Photo by Deen van Meer.

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