BWW Interview: THE LION KING's Lindiwe Dlamini Is Still Roaring After 20 Years
Lindiwe Dlamini's biggest challenge during her 20-year reign at The Lion King wasn't singing and dancing while balancing a patch of grass on her head. It was learning how to properly get into her elaborate lioness costume.
"I would scream, trying to put it on," said Dlamini with a laugh. "Instead of putting my leg where it was supposed to go I put my arm in it. That made me sweat!" Fortunately, with experience, donning animal and plant get-ups became second nature.
Dlamini tried out for The Lion King ensemble when it was germinating. No one anticipated the behemoth it would become. "I was four months pregnant when I performed for the audition," she recalled. "It was so exciting because I had been waiting for a while to get a job," said the South African native. "And when I told my sister about it, it turned out she was also hired for the ensemble! We just screamed on the phone to each other."
Dlamini remembers being in Minnesota for the tryout before the Broadway premiere. "I had never experienced working with puppets before while wearing these elaborate costumes. And singing and dancing at the same time!" she recalled. She portrays numerous creatures including a hyena, lioness and bird lady. "It was a real team effort to learn the choreography. I had to learn how to move like a hyena," Dlamini said. Cast members inhabit elaborate costumes on stilts and other contraptions to portray jungle creatures.
"It was a lot to learn at first and very hard. LION KING is unlike any other show and when I balance this thing on my head you can't bounce because you're singing and moving at the same time," said Dlamini. "Some actors would put buckets of water on their heads to learn how to balance." Becoming a hyena posed a particular problem. "The costume for the hyena can get hot but you get used to it, and there's good air-conditioning on stage so it's not unbearable."
Dlamini is continually amazed at the affection fans express during performances. "When we started in Minnesota we knew it was going to be huge. I say this all the time," she continued. "When the animals walk down the aisles during Circle of Life the audience is incredible. People applaud and point to the animals and sometimes touch you. I've seen grown men crying because they're so happy.
"Backstage on opening night was incredible," she said. "There was so much going on, and everything worked! There was a lot of hugging and crying," Dlamini said. The thrill of performing in the renowned production hasn't diminished for the veteran actor, even after thousands of performances.
"The funny thing is, after all this time, as soon as you hear the music-no matter what you're going through-and start putting on make-up, you become connected to the story. As you meditate on the different characters, it's like everything is focused on the moment," Dlamini said. From the beginning to the end of the show, she feels part of the production's soul. "It's like a unit: everyone is involved, there's no hanging around. It was a little scary in the beginning, but it was so challenging and exciting.
"I remember being very nervous at first because the hyena has a very big personality and my personality is the opposite of that," Dlamini said. "I have to be a wild and crazy hyena," she said with a laugh.
New cast members keep the show fresh. "We always have new people coming in and you can see how excited they are to be in The Lion King. It always reminds me how it was in the beginning, so that excites you, too."
Dlamini is mindful of the potential for injury. "We have physical therapists always available and we were taught how to land so we don't get hurt," she said. "Some things you can't prevent in live theater, anything can happen." Injuries can happen offstage, too. "One time I was just walking down the stairs and my ankle went out because I had missed a step," Dlamini recalled. "It can happen in your house!" It was a painful sprain, but she was on the mend quickly.
The show has been a true family affair for Dlamini. She met her musician husband on set. Her sister left the show five years ago but returns on occasion to re-join the ensemble.
Favorite moments are many, but one in particular resonates deeply. "My most favorite moment is when we sing Circle of Life. I also love singing with Nala," she said. "It feels like women power-giving this young girl blessings.
"When I first started, I had no idea I would still be here for 20 years," she said. "It's worldwide; it's mind-blowing. Even now I'm amazed there's still productions opening up all over the world. It's kind of a miracle."
Audience reaction is just as fevered now as it was 20 years ago. "The audience hasn't really changed. It's still the same wonderment and people love Circle of Life," Dlamini said.
"I am so proud that I have this gig."
The Lion King recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and is playing at the Minskoff Theatre, 200 West 45th Street. Music and lyrics are by Elton John & Tom Rice, costume designer and director is Julie Taymor and choreography by Garth Fagan.