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.