The Circle of Life: Disney’s The Lion King On The Broadway Stage

Interview with South African Actress Tshidi Manye

As a veteran of the Broadway stage with years of experience to her credit, Tshidi Manye is living a life many only dream of. But as the actress prepares to get in costume to celebrate the Town Center tree lighting, she is suddenly and acutely aware of her audience.

“This is different than being on stage. You never know who you are going to touch,” she says. “I hope it goes smoothly. If something goes wrong, I can’t blame it on anybody.”

The South African star has the charisma to appeal to all audiences, whether she’s viewing them from the stage or face to face as her long-term character, Rafiki, the shaman in The Lion King. Presented by the FSCJ Artist Series, The Lion King roars into Jacksonville January 31-February 11 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.

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It’s an interesting role for Manye, whose cousin is a shaman in her native country. The show’s opening ceremony reminds her of stories she heard growing up in Johannesburg about parties held by kings and a town-crier figure who sounded the news–just like Rafiki in the opening line announcing the celebration of the birth of Simba.

The mysticism that surrounds such a spiritual calling also prepared Manye with the strength and patience to follow her dream all the way to the Broadway stage. When the opportunity first arose to audition for The Lion King, she was working as a backup singer. Her friend was auditioning for the production, convincing Manye to come along and keep her company. As it turns out, opportunities often arrive on their own time.

Tshidi Mayne as Rafiki in The Lion King
Tshidi Mayne as Rafiki in The Lion King

“She said, ‘you don’t have to do it. Just come with me.’ In my mind, I thought this would never happen,” she says. “I auditioned three or four times.” Manye auditioned for a spot in the US company and didn’t get it. She auditioned for London and didn’t get a call back. When the company held auditions in Toronto, Manye gave it one more shot.

Of the thousands who auditioned, Manye made the first cut down to 100, then 50 to 25. Nine actors from the last 25 were invited to join the touring company, and she was among those selected for the ensemble. After some time as a member of the ensemble, however, Manye received word that she would be taking over the role of Rafiki. When The Lion King closed in Toronto, Manye headed to Broadway.

After 15 years on Broadway, she swapped places with Buyi Zama, an actress who has been a part of the show’s touring production for 11 years. It was a perfect arrangement given the okay by Disney. Manye wanted to travel, and Zama was hungry to make her Broadway debut.

“I never thought I belonged up front. When it happened, I thought someone was making a mistake. Big names go to Broadway, not me,” she says as the production celebrates its 20th anniversary. With music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, The Lion King first opened on Broadway in July, 1997.

Manye has toured Europe and Japan with M. Bongeni Ngema in the hit musical Sarafina. Other stage credits include Daughter of Nebo by Hillary Bletcher, Mfowethu by Gibson Kente and The Stick by Aubrey Sekhabi. She is honored to have performed with such legendary artists as Paul Simon, David Byrne, Hugh Masekela, Jabu Khanyile, and Vusi Mahlasela.

“Everybody is living The Lion King. It’s a different kind of Cinderella story. This is the story that everyone can relate to,” she says. The joy in bringing pride back to the homeland is a source of strength for the cast and audience alike. Manye says she’s received such encouraging messages from audience members after a show, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to give back to those who may be struggling.

Manye also participates in the Broadway Cares program which provides assistance for people living with HIV and women with breast and ovarian cancer. During the holidays, the shows on Broadway collect donations for the program and the principals take photos.

“People say they are going through something, and they come up to me and say ‘something told me everything is going to be okay,’” she says, recalling a mother and daughter who attended a show just one month after burying the girl’s father. The pair were visibly moved during the scene when Mufasa talks to the young Simba.

Playing the part of Rafiki struck close to home for Manye. As a spiritual guide, Rafiki is able to see the past, present, and future. During a meet and greet years ago, she encountered a young girl who shared her dream of appearing in The Lion King.

“The girl sits on my lap and says ‘I want to be Nala so bad.’ And I said, ‘you know what? If you hold on to it, you’ll be on stage one day, so keep the dream alive. Don’t give up. When you don’t get a part, it doesn’t mean you’re not qualified. It’s just not meant to be at that time.”

Years later when Manye returned to the tour after a short break, she was approached by a young woman in tears. “She said, ‘you won’t remember me,’ and she shows me a picture of the two of us,” says Manye. “She said, ‘you told me not to give up, and I never gave up. I kept pushing. When they told me you were coming, I started crying and had my picture ready. We are where we were meant to be.’”

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About Liza Mitchell

october, 2021

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