Tsidii Le Loka and the other South African actors who lend a distinctive and flavorful edge to Disney's musical The Lion King will be allowed to stay with the production as long as they like. Actors' Equity, the performers union, has granted the visitors leave to remain with the show indefinitely. Equity originally approved a 20-week stay for the six South Africans. Last fall, however, Disney Theatrical Production petitioned the union for an extension of the performers' tenure. Lebo M, director Julie Taymor and Disney executive Peter Schneider argued before Equity council that the actors drove the show and that their voices possessed a unique quality difficult to teach. Equity allowed an extension until June 30, 1998, but with the proviso that Disney hold workshops to train American actors in South African dialect. These trainees were intended eventually to replace the South Africans.
Since then, The Lion King has opened to great acclaim, and the African performers -- in particular, Tsidii Le Loka, who opens the show as Rafiki, the baboon shaman -- have become some of the show's more popular and visible performers. With the deadline of the extension approaching, Disney once again attested to the six singers' unique contribution, and Equity decided that they should be allowed to stay with the Broadway production. Classes instructing Americans in the disciplines of the South African roles will continue. Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg was on vacation and unavailable for comment.