The Wonderful World of Rafiki: Interview with Gugwana Dlamini of Disney’s The Lion King

The role of Rafiki is one that Gugwana Dlamini is quite familiar with. The South African performer has been playing it since 2002. Dlamini sang on the movie soundtrack and later joined the live production in London. She talks about her journey with the show that has taken her from the UK to Singapore to North American.

[Academy of Music on the Kimmel Cultural Campus, 240 S Broad Street] August 16-September 10, 2023;

The Lion King, Disney, cast: Nicholas Nkuna (Simba), Carole Stennett (Nala), Cleveland Cathnott (Mufasa), Stephen Carlile (Scar), Gugwana Diamini (pictured, Rafiki), Meilyr Sion (Zazu), John Hasler (Timon), Mark Roper (Pumbaa), Daniel Norford (Banzai), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Shenzi), Philip Oakland (Ed)

Debra Danese: What was your early training in your hometown of Durban, South Africa?

Gugwana Dlamini: I trained at Committed Artists which was based in Johannesburg. This is where I received my vocal and acting training from Mbongeni Ngema.

DD: What was your first professional role?

GD: My first professional work was the musical Sarafina; written and directed by Mbongeni Ngema. After that, I did the movie Sarafina. I also did the musical Township Fever, by the same writer, under Committed Artists. 

After that, I moved away from theatre and became a freelancer and session singer for many groups and bands in South Africa.

DD: You have a long history with The Lion King. How did it start?

GD: My involvement with The Lion King started with the 1994 animated film’s soundtrack. I was part of the choir that recorded in South Africa. 

Lebo M, who wrote additional music and lyrics for The Lion King and who I knew from doing Sarafina, came home to South Africa looking for singers for the soundtrack. Lebo contacted me about the opening of The Lion King stage production in the U.S. At that time, I had other commitments in South Africa. When auditions were announced in South Africa for the production in London’s West End, I decided to attend them. I started in the ensemble in the West End in 1999. In 2002, I was offered the role of Rafiki; which I’m still playing today. In between, I had breaks where I was also doing TV drama in South Africa.

Gugwana Dlamini

DD: There are five indigenous African languages spoken/sung in The Lion King. Were you already familiar with all of these languages prior to joining The Lion King or did you need to learn any? 

GD: In South Africa we have 11 languages-nine African, English, and Afrikaans. My first language is Zulu and I’m fluent in Xhosa. I learned other languages, like Sesotho and Setswana, for The Lion King. I can hear a little when someone speaks it; as I previously lived in cosmopolitan Johannesburg. Swahili is a language from East Africa; which I also learned for the show.

DD: What brings you back to playing this character time and again?

GD: Good question. The Lion King is a beautiful story. It connects or relates to everyone differently. It may be the journey of Simba; but it’s everyone’s journey. Personally, my character Rafiki also connects with me spiritually. I believe I was born to play this role because, at some point in my life, I had to learn who I am. I say this to Simba every night through our dialogue on stage. I love playing this character very much; as it touches me deeply.

Disney’s The Lion King plays August 16-September 10 at the Academy of Music on the Kimmel Cultural Campus!


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