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‘The Monkey’s His Uncle?’

‘The Monkey’s His Uncle?’

An Interview with Lion King's Buyi Zama


“Lion King” is in full swing at Popejoy, and Buyi Zama has been well-received. The accomplished stage actor sat down for a few minutes to talk about her accidental audition and what she thinks about the iconic character’s sex change from screen to stage.

How did you become involved in “Lion King”?

I went to an audition, just like most people do – but the only difference with me is that I wasn’t going to audition, I was tagging along with someone that was going to audition. I was support for my friend. And this guy came out and he said, ‘Are you auditioning?’ and I was like, ‘Um er … no.’ and he said, ‘Can you sing?’ I went, ‘Yeah.’ And he gave me the piece of paper, and I filled it out and I was like, ‘Oh, what have I got to lose?’”

Your character is comedic relief, but you have one of the more emotionally driven scenes – which do you prefer? 

I don’t think of Rafiki as funny, actually; she just happens to say things that people find funny. I think the funny characters in the show are Timon and Pumbaa. I guess the emotional part of Rafiki, that’s the way I feel more connected with the character. I think I prefer that one because I feel like I’m actually doing something that I’m supposed to be doing and it feels more real, if that makes any sense.

So Rafiki was played by a man (Robert Guillaume) in the “Lion King” film, so it’s really cool that a woman gets to play this role. How do you feel about that?

I think it is cool that there’s another female character that is kind a big-ish in the show, because otherwise it would just be, well, the Nala character is bigger than it was in the musical.

What’s challenging about your role?

Y’know, having to sing the first note. I usually just say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s fine,’ but seriously, having to sing the first note. If I mess up, then I feel like I’ve messed up the whole show.

I read in your bio that you’ve been to Shanghai and Johannesburg, everywhere! Do you have a favorite place that you’ve preformed? 

Johannesburg. I mean, it’s home – that’s the only reason. Besides, if I say another place, I’ll offend some people. But no, seriously, it’s home. I got to see my whole family, they got to come in and see the show.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go onto Broadway?

You have to really love it. I do find that when I talk to people they see it as something glamourous. I don’t think it is. It’s work. Is it lovely? Yes. But if you don’t put in the work, then it doesn’t even make sense.


Ashley Kurtz is a freelance theater writer.

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Ashley Kurtz is a freelance theater critic.

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