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UITE FRANKLY, I WAS BRACED TO ENDURE a kiddy show. Having skipped the movie version of The Lion King, except as it was inescapable on children's lunch boxes and gas-station giveaways, I had assumed that the Broadway version would be Disneyland on stage: cute, garish, thoroughly banal. Here is what it was instead, one afternoon last winter, for those of us shouldered together in standing-room-only places in the rococo environs of the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street.
As the curtain rises on the pre-dawn blue of the African veldt, a single voice quavers in the darkness. A figure staff in hand, and wearing an electrifyingly gorgeous and outrageous costume steps from the dark as night lifts into day in peeling bands of color. The figure's voice and arms open wide as if to give birth to the cosmos itself.
Then, at the rear of the theater, a curtain swishes open, and out pours every species of the savannah zebra, gnu, wildebeest, giraffe, cheetah, an elephant and her baby, every kind of bright bird leaping, springing, lumbering, and flitting down the aisles in a rapture of feather, fur, hide, tusk, and horn. As they stream onto the stage the creatures become a teeming chorus, lifting the sun to its zenith with their song. But one voice, the one that has crooned this whole world into existence, soars above them all, and above the exultant applause: the voice of UMass undergraduate Tsidii Le Loka.
What can be said about Tsidii Le Loka, this "not-yet-thirty" singer and actress who grew up living the drama that the rest of the world was observing in apartheid-era South Africa; who, already a seasoned singer and cabaret artist in her native country, came to UMass to study economics and music in 1991; and who left it in 1996, one credit shy of a degree, for a lead in the most phenomenally successful show on Broadway? (Tickets are sold out through spring of 1999; reviews have been ecstatic, and most have singled out Le Loka.) For the two-and-a-half hours of The Lion King, as "Rafiki the marvelous shaman baboon," Le Loka hobbles, swings, and dances in and out of the action. It is she who predicts the rise of Simba the Cub to the throne; she who laments his flight from Pride Rock when evil contaminates it; she who reminds Simba of his birthright, who unites him with Nala his queen, who leads the celebration when wholeness is restored to the savannah.
I reached Le Loka by phone a week or two later in her Manhattan apartment. In the background I could hear the drone of traffic and the occasional siren. Though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, she was just settling in with her "morning" cup of coffee. (She gets home from evening performances around midnight, but is "so hyped up after the show" that it takes another two or three hours of reading and soaking in the tub before she can sleep.)
HE GREAT PART ABOUT ORIGINATING a role is that you get to create it from scratch," she explained, her raspy voice softened by Sesotho, her lilting native language. (She speaks four others.) Le Loka's job was to give flesh to a character that director Julie Taymor wanted to reinvent for the stage. In the movie, Rafiki is a baboon, a male, and, as roles go, a lightweight. Noting the dearth of female characters in the story the only one with much to do is Nala, whose importance is largely in her ability to carry on the royal line Taymor envisioned Rafiki as one who would provide both comic relief and spiritual gravity.
Finding someone with the vocal range to handle the songs of Elton John, Tim Rice, and composer Lebo M; the stage presence to render commanding a role that could easily devolve into caricature; and an easy intimacy with the inflections of Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, and Swahili, was not going to be easy. A South African colleague pointed Taymor toward Le Loka, who had not only won awards for TV performances, but recorded with UMass masters Max Roach and Yusef Lateef. "You can audition as many people as you like," Taymor was told, "but you will only find one person for the role no matter where you look."
In the summer of 1996, as the search for Rafiki was going forward in New York, Le Loka was in Amherst looking forward to a bit of holiday with a sister who was coming in from Africa. The day the sister arrived, the phone rang; it was Taymor asking her to come to New York to audition. "I had three days to get ready for an audition for a show I hadn't heard of and didn't understand," says Le Loka with her easy laugh. But, as a "very, very focused" artist, she had chosen UMass partly because of its proximity to New York City; she was always ready, on some level, to drop everything and go. She got the part and immediately moved to Minneapolis, where the show was rehearsed and, for its first three months, performed.
Le Loka's Rafiki has touches of the simian: the white face and cheek markings, the big flap over the grass skirt that is unmistakably an ape's hindquarters. In one humorous scene, the character comes swinging onto stage on a vine. But like so many of the figures in the musical, Rafiki is "highly stylized and impressionistic," as one writer put it: the character expands beyond the creature. Rafiki is also a stiff-hipped village matriarch, stooping forward on her staff to dispense wisdom or to scold. Dwelling in an enormous tree, she is a soothsayer, a wood-spirit with terrifying six-inch nails and zanily spouting hair. And her costume from the batiked headdress to the huge ruffed and beaded necklace hints at an African ancestor figure.
I made the mistake of referring to the look as a witch doctor's. "There's really no such thing as a witch, and in any case that term doesn't afford the dignity the role is due," Le Loka gently corrected me. "I think of Rafiki as a fangoma, the person who is the spiritual center to the community, someone who can see beyond the ordinary ability into the future."
HERE WAS NO ONE MOMENT when Tsidii Le Loka decided to become a performer; the woman whose teenage nickname was "Diana Ross" has no memory of ever wanting to be anything else. She grew up the third of four children in a middle-class family in Lesotho, a land-locked enclave of South Africa. Her mother, Temperance, who got her M.Ed. at UMass in 1980, is a professor of health education, her father a professor of history and literature. Le Loka describes her family and community as "humble, extremely spiritually rich, people of incredible strength. You grow up knowing who you are from a very early age." Public schools for blacks were "very inferior," and she was lucky to go to a private progressive school, one of the first to integrate in the early seventies. Though the strife in southern Africa ultimately became so intense that Le Loka left to pursue her studies in peace, it also gave her the worldliness to take her ambitions beyond her own borders.
"That environment, for all its social ills, has given me spiritual awareness and a sense of purpose that I could never have gotten elsewhere," she says. "Coming out of South Africa, by the end of your high school years you're just so aware of so many aspects of life. Your antenna is so keen. You know how to discuss politics and social issues in a way that, had I grown up elsewhere, I wouldn't have grasped until I was sixty-five."
Another advantage of growing up in Lesotho was that she didn't see TV until she was thirteen. Her family, like most blacks, had access only to radio; it was sound that fired her imagination. "I would rush back from school to listen. Even before I knew the ability was there, the passion was there. It just so happened I had the voice to do it." She excelled in science and briefly considered going into medicine, as did two of her sisters. But though "I could always see myself doing other things, there was nothing that fascinated me as much as the idea of performance."
Le Loka already had plenty of performance experience by the time she arrived at UMass. Voice professor Paulina Stark describes her as "a regal presence, magical on stage; it didn't matter if she was singing a little song by Purcell you could see the fascination the audience felt for her." Le Loka sang for Desmond Tutu when he came to UMass in 1992; she took off in the middle of one year to tour with Harry Belafonte. Intent on learning as much as she could, Le Loka had a focus and charisma that could daunt and dazzle fellow students who, says Stark, nonetheless benefited from being around "a very serious artist."
Though she has performed eight shows a week since last July, Le Loka said in January she was "just about getting my feet wet here." The Lion King is, she believes, "history-making" a fabulously imaginative translation to the stage by Julie Taymor, who designed the costumes and masks, commissioned the building of giant puppets and shadow puppets, and wrote additional lyrics created, in sum, something that sweeps everybody away. So can we expect to see Le Loka anytime soon, cutting her fine figure near the Campus Pond, pausing to feed the ducks as she walks to her economics class to finish that last credit?
"Never," she laughs with that stunning confidence. "I'm on Broadway now. There's no turning back."
Head shot of Tsidii taken by Sara Krulwich/NYT permission / Costume photo of Tsidii taken by Joan Marcus