I think you may agree that beyond the iconic voice of James Earl Jones portraying that of Mufasa, The Lion King of our childhoods never felt particularly Black. Even as the 2019 production by Jon Favreau rolled into theaters with a predominantly Black cast of voice talent, we’ve never really seen the story give us an overt display of African American culture….until now. In Anaheim, California’s Disneyland theme park, a new on stage adaptation of the story called “Tale of The Lion King,” has debuted.
Located in the park’s Fantasyland Theater, the production boasts all new musical arrangements, set pieces, and some incredible choreography. And this time, the show intentionally pays homage to the cultural roots of the story’s setting, which the prior two didn’t quite hit the mark on, despite its being based in Africa.
Your reliable narrators this time around are a traveling troupe called The Storytellers of The Pride Lands. According to San Diego station, ABC 10 News, they each take turns telling the story of how young Simba went from a cub to a King with a beautiful peppering in of drum and dance performances. The troupe also sings throughout its musical numbers, with lead narrator Mwongozo recounting Simba’s journey. The other storytellers embody the remaining characters including Scar, Nala, even Timon and Pumbaa.
One of the major points of difference between this stage play and its Broadway predecessor, is that there are no masks or animal costuming. Instead the cast is dressed in various designs inspired by traditional African garb.
Susana Tubert, Creative Director of Disney Live Entertainment, and Associate Show Director Paul Bryant wanted to ensure that the show’s Black audience would be able to see themselves within it.
“I think that as a company,” stated Tubert during the panel discussion after the preview, “we’re recognizing that we need to augment the voices at the table so that our products are authentic, genuine, and as beautiful as what you just saw today.”
In addition to the headpieces brilliantly designed, the hairstyling was also a key component in the story, just as it is in our everyday lives in the Black community. Head cosmetologist Shemika Draughan spoke about the hair moments she created. “It was really important to me to bring more realism and true authenticity with our individuality, with the story, and the variety of hairstyles, textures, and things that the dancers brought,” she said during the panel.
The new choreography is also deeply inspired by both African and Black American dances. Show goers will notice traditional African footwork, jazz, funk, hip hop and contemporary moves on stage.
“We wanted to bring musical theater and also the pop world where we come from, and kind of combine that and tell the story through choreography,” said choreographer Marcel Wilson at the panel. “We also went as far as Simba having a signature move to make it Simba. Scar had a certain bit of quirk that he would do all the time that you could recognize.”
“Tale of The Lion King” is a part of Disneyland’s Celebrate Soulfully programming, and will run from now until July 4.