Buyi Zama Plays Rafiki, a Wise, Female Baboon in The Lion King

In the movie The Lion King, Rafiki was a male baboon. But when director Julie Taymor put her acclaimed version on Broadway, she decided Rafiki should be a strong female lead, actress Buyi Zama told Art Attack.

"Rafiki is a person that takes care of everyone. Rafiki means friend," said Zama, who is from South Africa. "When I'm on stage and I get to help people. It's so so natural to me. I guess Rafiki is more like my mom and my mom is a woman I would like to become."

Zama, who had already done Lion King in other countries, was already with the musical in Las Vegas when she was asked to join the national tour. She jumped at the chance to see more of the United States. And now she's on her way to Houston in the Gexa Energy Broadway production due at the Hobby Center in July.

"If I'm not at home I may as well be everywhere instead of being in one place. It's amazing how America on its own is so different," she said, explaining that at first all American speech sounded the same to her but now she can pick up on the accents.

Zama says she began singing when she was about 9 and getting involved in youth clubs. "It was just only singing until my Lion King audition. I didn't know I could act."

Her audition was in early 2002 - she and a friend went together - and they expected her to hit her paces right away. " I remember sitting with the resident director. He starts telling me the story of The Lion King." Then he asked her to stand up and try to walk like Rafiki. "I thought, he must be kidding; I don't know how to do this." But, she said, they must have seen something in her because they hired her.

Zama says she likes all kinds of music. "My mom used to play music all the time: American pop, African jazz. I just like to use my voice. Maybe because I'm not home I've been listening to a lot of South African traditional music. When I was younger I wanted to sing American pop."

Zama's first production was in London. When it came time to move to South Africa, "I really didn't know how it was going to be received." She was afraid everyone in South Africa would know she wasn't really an actress - but that didn't happen.

One thing she did have to worry about: all of Rafiki's languages.Her own first language is Zulu so that was a snap. But she also had to speak Suto (a language of the Transvaal) and although she knows some of it, she isn't fluent and knew if she mispronounced something she'd be nailed for that. "I had to make sure I was perfect at home."

As it turned out, the South African audiences loved the production, she said. "It's a beautiful story. Every day I get different messages from it. It's a story that everyone can identify with for when they were younger. It takes them back to their childhood."

Oh and Zama wants Houston audiences to know one other thing. She's a vegetarian and wants to know the best places to eat vegetarian food in Houston. She invites everyone to follow her on Twitter @Buyizama. If you have any questions about The Lion King, or restaurant tips, please tweet her.

The Lion King runs Tuesday, July 10 through Sunday, August 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information call 1-800-982-2787 or go to the Gexa Energy website.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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