This week, Playbill catches up with Bonita J. Hamilton, who plays one of Scar's hench-hyenas, Shenzi, in the Tony-winning The Lion King on Broadway. Hamilton, who made her Broadway debut in the Disney hit, has played the role for 17 years. The musical celebrates 25 years on Broadway November 13.
Not that she's played the role straight through. In between, the Alabama native (who is also a real estate agent) has appeared in regional productions of Guys and Dolls, The Piano Lesson, The Old Settler, and In the Blood—as well as in a staged reading of Mandela the Musical. Hamilton was also seen in HBO's The Knick.
The Lion King will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a performance benefiting the Entertainment Community Fund. Below, Hamilton tells us about her favorite memory from her 17 years in The Lion King—it includes one of her co-hyenas falling into the orchestra pit!
What is your typical day like now?
Bonita J. Hamilton: My typical day begins at 6 AM. I have two children, so I make sure they get to the bus stop on time and have everything they need for a successful school day. I may lay back down for a little while and then get up and work on any auditions/voiceovers that I may have. During the 18 months the theatre was shut down, I made a pandemic pivot to real estate. I take clients out in search of their first or forever home.
By 3 PM I switch gears and get into Lion King mode. I start with vocal warmups and do a cardio workout to get my blood flowing. We have this really long, steep hill in my neighborhood—I’ve been known to run up the hill singing to prepare for the show. I start my commute into the city at about 4:30 PM and arrive at the theatre typically at 5:45 PM. I start getting into make-up and getting dressed for the show. After the show, there are times that we may host talkbacks for a special group where we have a question-and-answer session. Afterwards I run to my bus and head home.
The Lion King marked your Broadway debut. Do you recall what it was like performing on a Broadway stage for the first time?
My Broadway debut is a moment in time that I will never forget. It was surreal. Being on Broadway was a childhood dream. From my Broadway debut to now, I am truly living out my wildest dreams and watching them come true every time the curtain rises.
you have been with the musical for so long, can you share a
favorite onstage memory and/or a favorite backstage memory?
I have so many wonderful memories with this show, onstage and off. I think one of my favorite memories is during "Be Prepared" [the song Scar sings with his hyenas]. The three hyenas were completely downstage, and the set was moving behind us. Well, on this particular night, the set came a little too close to us and grazed James Brown-Orleans, who plays Banzai. He fell into the pit but scaled a steel rod connected to the stage, jumped into the audience, ran back up on stage, and said his next line as well as my line—because I was in shock at what I had just witnessed and forgot to say it.
The curtain did not come in, the scene did not stop, and it truly looked as if it were a part of the show and that nothing had happened. The magic of live theatre. I think that is a moment that will live forever in Lion King lore. James was fine, and we still laugh at his incredible gymnastic abilities to this day!
Are there any parts of your role or the musical that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
It would be in the second act when Simba sings “Endless Night.” During the time that Broadway shut down in the pandemic, we had no idea what was going to happen. We did not know if Broadway would reopen. Or if and when it reopened, would people be willing to come into a packed theatre? Would it be safe for the actors and the audience? So many unanswered questions.
The lyrics at the end of “Endless Night” are, “I know that the night must end and that the sun will rise …. the sun, the sun will rise. The sun, the sun will rise.” Those lyrics signify to me that light always drives out darkness. The pandemic was a very dark time in the world, and we needed to remember that the sun will rise, and we get another chance to make things right.
As The Lion King approaches its 25th anniversary on Broadway, why do you think the musical has had such longevity?
I attribute The Lion King’s longevity to its ability to transcend all cultural, racial, and age barriers. Even though technically we are portraying animals onstage, it is a very human story that speaks to everyone. The fact that Julie Taymor directed the show as a seamless cinematic feature, that is beautifully orchestrated and visually stunning, doesn’t hurt.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists andartistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
When speaking about BIPOC artists and artistry, I would like it to be known that when we stand up, we represent a whole village. We represent generations of people that have come before us. We stand on their great shoulders. Our stories are rooted in triumphs and pain. When we tell our stories, I feel like people do not respect our stories—they have to be shaped in their minds instead of our reality. We in the BIPOC community want to be seen for our humanity and our realities. We want to be acknowledged for who we are. We want to open their minds to our world.
Many don’t understand what we go through even to be noticed. Sometimes the powers that be have to look through our Blackness and then see our artistry. While we all acknowledge that there is overlap in the experiences of the BIPOC community, it is important that our experiences are acknowledged individually. Our experiences are not the same. See our humanness. We exist. Stop putting us into a box. We can’t stay there, and we won’t. See us. Hear us. Acknowledge us and not by your criteria but our own.
What did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
During the pandemic I learned that I am incredibly resilient, resourceful, and that I am wonderfully and fearfully made. I exist in a complete and perfect state lacking no essential characteristics. I learned that I am enough.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
I just recently voiced the character of Susan on FX’s Archer, as well as Mer on Adult Swim’s Teen Euthanasia. I am the founder and CEO of Pretty Hyena, LLC. My company recently produced the 2021-2022 Spread Game tour for the Harlem Globetrotters. I am excited to explore more opportunities for my production company, as well as on film/television and voiceover.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
I am really passionate about several organizations. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Entertainment Community Fund (formerly The Actors Fund), Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, BTU-Black Theatre United, SPICY Zine, and UNCF-United Negro College Fund.