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BWW Interviews: Buyi Zama Talks About 'Rafiki,' THE LION KING, Traveling, Houston Heat, and More

The Lion King is currently playing to packed houses in Greenville, South Carolina. However, the cast is looking forward to bringing the show to Houston, Texas for the third time. On the morning of June 14, the charming and personable Buyi Zama, who plays Rafiki, took some time out of her demanding performance schedule to talk to me about playing Rafiki all over the world, the wax figurine of Rafiki at Madam Tussauds Las Vegas, life in general, Houston heat, and she even offered some great advice for everyone with dreams and aspirations.

As a child, you never saw yourself as a performer. Is there a unique and interesting story behind how you came to be in the beloved and well known and musical, The Lion King?

Is that a question? (Laughs) I never saw myself... (Pauses) I used to sing. I used to sing all the time, but anything other than just singing, I never saw myself as that. And, I thought everyone could sing, so I didn't think it was anything special. So, yeah! (Pauses) My audition, I was hanging out on with a friend, so I didn't really plan to audition for Lion King. And, they gave me a job for some reason. I don't know. I still think they're going to find out one day that I'm not really trying to do it; I was just at the right place at the right time and they were desperate enough to give me a job.

Rafiki is a fan-favorite character. What has been like playing this role all over the world?

You know, what's great about Rafiki is that no one understands her, but everyone understands her at the same time. (Pauses) Me included. (Laughs) Because she is a mysterious being, you know. She is half baboon, half woman. She is just wise woman. I mean, I sing in a language that most people don't understand wherever I'm at, except when I performed in South Africa where they understood each and every word. Everywhere else we don't understand her, but they just get the character. They get what I'm about. They get what the character is about. And, that's partly, or mostly, I think, because (Pauses) emotions have no language. People are actually able to let go of trying to analyze everything, and they just feel. So when you get to use that part of you, which is feelings, you enjoy something more. It's just like when you love someone and you can't put it in words, only because you feel it and you can't explain it.

While playing Rafiki in Las Vegas, Madame Tussauds commissioned a wax figurine of you in the Rafiki costume. What was that experience like?

Um! (Laughs) Firstly, maybe I'm weird, but whenever things like that happen, I always just think, "Aw, that's not me. They're not doing this becuase... It's just something that they want to do. It's not... (Pauses) It's not real." I never believe those things, even though they are happening for real. (Laughs) I guess that's the weird part of me. Because... (Pauses) I mean, when I was there to unveil the thing, I was, "Why is everyone taking so many pictures? It's this wax thing. It's not me, of course. It's Rafiki." And also, I think there is that separation, of course, between me and Rafiki. I always just think that Rafiki upstages me all the time. (Laughs) She's that strong. (Pauses) It is mostly about Rafiki. It's never me. I just bring her to life. That's all.

Rakifi goes on an emotional journey every performance, what is your favorite aspect of this journey or the character?

Mostly, whatever I do that I'm going through in my life, when I get to be Rafiki it's just always totally different. I know that whenever we have rehearsals (Pauses) that when we move into a new city we have a dress rehearsal every time, and sometimes when I'm feeling a little inert, after just getting into the city, and I'm a little tired, and some people go, "Oh, just mark it." You can never mark Rafiki! I can never ever mark the emotions that go with it. I can never mark the eulogy. I mean, it has to be real all the time. I have to go through that emotional center in me to do it each time. It doesn't mater whether there is one person watching or there's a full audience. It doesn't, even if it's just red chairs. (Pauses) You know, every part of Rafiki. She is always... (Pauses) I mean, even when she is happy, she is extra happy. When she's sad, she's really sad. And through all of that, she always has joy in her, and that's what I like about her. She is always positive about things.

Rafiki displays incredible strength in the show, always believing in Simba and being a good mentor to Simba. Do you share this personality trait or any other personality trait with the character you portray?

Yes. I basically believe in everyone, in my life. I feel that I always want to see the best out of people, be it my family, my friends. You know, I always look for that good part of them, and I want that to be seen by everyone else. People spend enough time doubting themselves. Yes, for that, and taking care of everyone and having everyone come to me for advice, I guess Rafiki and I share that. We're there to help.

In your opinion, what is it about The Lion King that makes it appeal to such diverse audiences?

I think because it's a good versus evil story, and, you know, people always want good, being good, to outshine evil, of course, to win. And everyone can identify with it. It's a family story. It's a family show. It's one of those family shows that you can take the whole family [to]. And everyone, you know, the dad's will identify with Mufasa, and the mother's with Sarabi. And, you know, being part of a community is what The Lion King is about. Everyone can identify. I think that's what it is. (Pauses) And, also, it's more than just, as much as we would think that it's just about animals, it's a human story. (Pauses) You know, it's very human. It goes to that part of ourselves—it's that emotional center, again; you get to that part. And, the puppets! (Laughs) They make it amazing. People feel like they're part of the story because they see how everything works. They feel like they, you know, are backstage. They see the gazelle wheel, and they see that, you know, of course, this thing is attached to these wheels that look like a bicycle, but they're still able to use their imagination. You know, they're not just limited just to what we want to show them, they also feel like they see how things work. That's why.

While in Houston the touring production of The Lion King is doing a special Autism-friendly performance (Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 2:00pm). How do you feel about this life-changing experience for people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families?

Oh, I didn't know that we were doing that, but I'm very glad we are. I think everyone needs entertainment in their life, no matter [what]. We always do shows for people that are deaf. We always try to do special shows like that. I didn't know we were doing that. This is going to be my first time doing that one. I'm excited now. You just made me excited. You just got me excited. Everyone, everyone needs entertainment, and I think it's going to be good for them, those that are going to come. And, it's going to be good for people that are not autistic that will be in the audience so they can, you know, experience being... mostly, it's families that just get to deal with that type of disease of that person, but it's going to more than just autistic people, I hope, in the audience, so they can also be part of that. It's not only going to be life-changing for us, but for the people that are coming to see the show. (Pause) I'm glad that that's happening. I'm really glad.

I noticed you said your dream was to travel the world, and you have certainly done that with The Lion King. Is there anywhere you want to go that you have yet to visit?

The world is still so huge. (Laughing) There is still so much... there is a lot! There's a lot. I mean, Europe is huge on it's own. I've yet to see all of Africa, and I'm from there. So, (Pauses) I mean the world, I think, as much as I've traveled, I've only seen ten percent of the world. There is so much, so many cultures to experience. There is still so much. And I'm glad I'm doing this. So, I'm going to be doing this for a while. I still want to see the world. I'm still very excited to see the world. And, I'm very excited to come there [Houston]! They tell me that it's going to be really hot!

Oh, yes. We're already in the 90s and 100s every day. It's warm.

Bring it on! (Laughs) When I leave there, I want to be black!

You'll get to leave before we hit the worst of our summer heat, which is always in mid-August.

Yes! But, you know, I lived in Las Vegas, so it's not going to be too crazy.

The heat in Houston is a bit different than it is in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is dry, so the heat doesn't feel the same there as it does here. Here, because of the humidity, the heat kind of feels like it sits on you—it envelops you, all that water in the air.

You know, I'm just going to love it more because my voice is not going to be dry, and I'm going to be hot! Oh, I love it! I'm excited. I always get excited though. I love life! I like seeing people happy, and, I think, when the sun is out people are always smiling. Oh! Yeah! (Laughs) Do you like summer?

I'm not a big fan of the summers in Houston because they get too hot for me.

What's wrong with you! (We both laugh, heartily.)

Now that you have established yourself as a musical theatre actress, is there now a dream role that you'd love to play?

See, this is the thing; I wish I had played another role then I would be dreaming of playing Rafiki. (Laughs) But now, I think I'm playing my dream role. Even though I didn't plan it. I didn't ever... it's just this is where it started for me. It just started big! So, (Pauses) I mean, I was in the ensemble a long time ago, when I started. You know, I was having fun then. But then they gave me Rafiki. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. Which is why I always try to make people believe in them[selves]. People never stop and see their potential, and I think I did not see mine. I didn't know that I could do what I do, until someone else saw it in me and believed in me. Now, I always try to spark that in people and just encourage them. So, you know, this is my dream role, and, of course, I'm living my dream because I travel. That's all I can ask for, really. (Pauses) You know. That's it.  I don't know if I... Let me think. I've never actually [thought] about it. Maybe when I see you, after the show, I will know. (Laughs) But, I think I'm playing my dream role. (Pauses) Yeah. People tell me I'm pretty funny (Pauses). Sometimes! (Laughs) People tend to laugh around me, so maybe I should get into some comedy. I don't know. (Laughs) But, I don't know. I don't know if there's a role that I'd like... I don't know. It hasn't been written yet.

What advice can you give to anyone interested in becoming a musical theatre performer?

Well, this is just not for people who want to get into musical theatre, it's anyone who wants to get into anything they dream of. If you feel like you like musical theatre, see as many musicals as possible. Try to practice what you need to do to get in there. Do some dancing. Do some singing. Do whatever that will give you that edge. I only sang, but luckily someone saw that I could also act. So, I was lucky in that way, but maybe if I had developed my talent earlier on, if I'd tried to get into it earlier, maybe someone would have spotted me earlier. (Laughs) I just think they should try to do as much as possible, now, while they're still not getting paid. Go to youth clubs and study. There is always something that happens on the weekends. And drama class. Something. Do that. Get into some dancing. Get into some singing. That's my advice. (Pauses) Read books! READ BOOKS! (Pauses) Yeah. Read books about whatever you want to get into. That's it. (Pauses) Yeah. Then, and mostly, you know, when people have that dream of doing whatever they want to do, especially when they want to get into musical theatre, the people around you will tell you that it's not worth it. Even now, you'll meet people and they'll say, "So, what else are you doing?" "I...I work! I have a job. I mean, this is what I'm doing right now." They go, "But, what else?" They think it's a hobby. I mean, this day and age, people think it's a hobby. You should love it enough. Just do it. Don't listen to them. They'll tell you that it's just a hobby, you know. Don't listen to those people. Do what you want to do. Do it right. And the parents, oh, sometimes parents don't support their children when they want to get into the arts, and they're the people that should be encouraging the young. Yeah, just believe in yourself, and try to get as much information on whatever you want to do, and do it.

Disney's spectacular stage musical of The Lion King, with sensational Buyi Zama porting Rafiki, roars into Houston on July 10, 2012. It plays at The Hobby Center's Sarofim Hall until August 12, 2012. For more information and tickets please visit or call (713) 315 – 2525.

For Hobby Center patrons that are interested in the special Autism-friendly performance on Saturday July 28, 2012 at 2:00pm, please call (713) 315-2580 or visit the Hobby Center box office in person.

Photos Courtesy of Lion King staff via Wikimedia Commons, RD/ Erik Kabik/ Retna Digital, and Joan Marcus.

Buyi Zama who played Rafiki pictured at Disney's The Lion King at Mandalay Bay and Madame Tussauds Las Vegas Unveil Iconic Rafiki Wax Figure at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas, NV on March 4, 2010. © RD/ Erik Kabik/ Retna Digital

Buyi Zama as Rafiki in Las Vegas @ Joan Marcus

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