In the summer of 1997, South African–born actress Lindiwe Dlamini was a new mom struggling to find work on the New York stage almost a decade after her Broadway debut in Sarafina. Her luck changed when she was cast in the ensemble of the highly anticipated stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. Twenty years later, the show remains one of Broadway’s biggest hits — and Dlamini still proudly leads the parade of animals down the aisle during “Circle of Life.”
“It’s crazy and it’s wonderful,” Dlamini says of her distinction as the only original cast member still appearing in The Lion King on its 20th birthday. In addition to the security of a steady paycheck, Dlamini met her future husband, Bongi Duma, in the show, and her pre–Lion King baby, Ayanda, now 20, has been joined by a 9-year-old sister, Zikhona. “When I think about all that has happened [in the past two decades] it surprises me sometimes,” she says, “and yet every night when the show starts, I have this feeling like it’s the first time.”
Dlamini vividly remembers the sense of wonder she experienced at fittings for Julie Taymor’s intricate costumes, including puppet pieces and masks that don’t hide the actors’ faces. “We had been wondering how human beings would transform into animals,” she says of the cast, “and when it started coming together in rehearsal, we were amazed.” Three leaping dancers became a trio of antelopes, hyenas prowled on all fours, and Dlamini, as a bird lady, made the pilgrimage to Pride Rock carrying soaring puppets in each hand.
On November 13, 1997, opening night at the gorgeously renovated New Amsterdam Theatre, Dlamini felt nervous. But by the end of Taymor’s astonishing opening number, she recalls, “the response from the audience was so overwhelming that we all started tearing up backstage.” Composing themselves, Dlamini and her fellow ensemble members returned to their nightly routine of seven quick costume changes, culminating in a triumphant reprise of “Circle of Life” and the first of more than 8,000 standing ovations.
Though she’s too modest to say so, Dlamini and her South African castmates give The Lion King its heart and vital element of authenticity. A native of Durban, she grew up hearing the Zulu chants and melodies added to Elton John’s score by composer and original cast member Lebo M. “The music is so familiar to me,” she says, expressing gratitude that the show’s South Africa–favored songs have sparked two decades of worldwide employment for her country’s most talented performers. She even married one of them, although incoming cast members often express surprise when they discover Dlamini and Duma, a veteran of the German company, are husband and wife. “We keep things professional at the theatre,” she explains with a laugh.
In a show that’s a perfect fit for her skills and background, it makes sense that Dlamini has embraced a long run. But 20 years? “People ask me, ‘How have you stayed so long?’ And I tell them that the audience makes it feel new every day,” she says. “I have the privilege of being the first bird lady to go down the aisle [during “Circle of Life”] and there is always the same look of amazement and awe from people who have never seen the show. Sometimes grown men are in tears because they’re overwhelmed.”
Equally important is the community formed backstage among performers who have shared personal milestones and watched each other’s children grow up. “The cast feels like family,” Dlamini says, “and when new people come in, it’s refreshing to see how excited and curious they are. They ask me, ‘How did this start? How did you figure this out?’ It reminds me that I was there when everything was created.”
Disney’s legendary attention to detail ensures that The Lion King company remains as sharp in 2017 as it was on opening night. “We’re always trying to make it better,” Dlamini says. “We continue to rehearse, and we’re constantly reminded of the importance of the story. That’s what has kept the show going for so long: It’s about life, and moments everybody can relate to. There’s birth, there’s death, there’s happiness, there’s struggle. It’s about family, and it’s real.”
Dlamini’s own family life is a bit unconventional, given that she and her husband spend evenings and the greater part of every weekend at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, home of The Lion King since 2006. “Our daughters have adjusted to our lives as artists, and we find ways to enjoy our time together,” she says of her New Jersey–based family. “We do as much as possible on Monday, which is our weekend.”
Dlamini and Duma must be setting a positive example, because Ayanda is a singer working on her first album, and Zikhona has already participated in a group audition to play Young Nala. “Maybe someday I will come and watch my daughter in the show,” Dlamini says with a chuckle.
As for her own future, Dlamini hopes to continue her record-setting run “for as long as I’m able to do what I’m asked to do. My voice hasn’t changed; the way I move hasn’t changed. I know how to maintain myself to do the show eight times a week. I’m extremely proud and humbled and grateful to have done this for so long.” So, 10 more years on Broadway? “If they still want me and I’m still singing the same way, I’ll be here!”