SOUTH African performer Buyi Zama was originally contracted for a year when she began her role in The Lion King as Rafiki on London’s West End in 2002.
She has since continued as the joyous character in South Africa, Las Vegas, Taiwan, Shanghai and on Broadway while creating the role in Australia’s first production in 2003, and returning for the current Australian show.
“I’ve never counted how many shows I’ve done and I’m not going to start now,” Zama said.
“There was a time between the South African and Las Vegas productions where I had about four or five months off. I got to hang out at home and my brother was getting married so I offered to co-ordinate the wedding but didn’t realise how stressful it would be.
“I didn’t know what I was doing but at least I know now that I’d never make it as a professional wedding co-ordinator.”
The performance schedule did take its toll on Zama during this year’s Melbourne season when she had to take time off following throat surgery, but the Durban beauty is back and excited about the season at Crown Theatre Perth.
“My dream when I was young was to see the world and I get to do that with the show,” Zama said.
“And unlike people who just go on vacation, I get to be there, have a bank account and live it.
“You look at Simba’s journey where he’s young and doesn’t know what’s going on, that’s how I was while growing up.
“There was a lot going on in the country I lived in but I wasn’t really aware because it’s all I knew; I had to be away to see what was happening.”
Zama said despite the schedule of performing eight shows per week, she still loved playing Rafiki, which means ‘friend’ in Swahili.
And her energy is always boosted when she begins the opening song Circle of Life.
“It makes me so happy when I start the show and everyone in the cast is genuinely smiling, not just because they’ve been told to,” she said.
“It is work, but when that song starts, it just brings joy into your heart.”
Although Zama does not speak Swahili, she does speak Sotho, one of 11 official South African languages, which features in one of the most amusing scenes in the Disney production.
The scene’s humour is achieved despite the fact the audience has no idea what Rafiki is saying.
“For me, it’s all about a feeling,” she said.
“As a society we’ve stopped listening with our hearts, we want to dissect everything when we should just feel.”
Zama returns to Perth with high hopes after previous holidays to visit a friend and plans to explore as much as possible during The Lion King’s final Australian season.
“I might even put on a show as myself – An Evening with Buyi Zama,” she said.
“I haven’t done any in Australia but I want to in Perth. I love the heat so I’m sure I’ll feel inspired.”
What: The Lion King
Where: Crown Theatre Perth
When: showing until February 28