The Lion King is the stage adaptation of the 1994 Disney film of the same name, which tells the tale of a young lion next in line to rule the Pride Lands, who must learn the value of social responsibility in the aftermath of his father’s murder. Since its debut in 1997, it’s been attended by millions of people all over the world, wowing audiences with the unique costuming, beautiful music, eye-popping effects, and the wonderful performances from the enthusiastic actors. The North American touring production is currently showing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco until Dec. 31.
The cast is comprised of a wide diversity of performers from all over the world, from New York actor Dashaun Young (Simba) to Buyi Zama (Rafiki), who’s originally from South Africa. And there’s Gerald Ramsey, who plays Mufasa — he is originally from American Samoa and was living in Hawaii when he was cast in the touring production over a year ago. Ramsey is one of only two Pacific Islander leading actors in the world to be in a Disney stage production.
In a phone interview, Ramsey discusses what it’s been like for him to play Mufasa and how he’s been able to find intersections amongst performing in theatre and the oral and dance traditions of his Samoan background.
You’ve been playing Mufasa in the North American touring production of The Lion King for over a year now. What has this experience been like for you?
It’s been pretty unbelievable. It sounds kind of cliché but it feels like my life has taken such a sharp turn and in a direction that I never, ever dreamed of. People still tell me like, “You’re so lucky, you get to live your dream,” but to be honest, I never even dared to dream that this was possible. But here I am, a year and a half later, getting a chance to tour the country with The Lion King.
How did you get into the performing arts and did your parents encourage your aspirations?
Not necessarily in a negative way, but my parents didn’t encourage me to pursue the arts. I love music and I love dance—specifically Polynesian dance and music—and being a Pacific Islander, it’s just a part of who you are; as you grow up, you grow up with music and dance. So it’s always been a part of my life, but never formally.
I started dancing with a Samoan club in college and then I finished my degree, my undergrad degree in anthropology, and then started working in education. I ended up working at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, and that became a very solid foundation as far as professional dancing and learning about Polynesian cultures and music. That was big, as far as working and being paid for being in the arts.
I read how you were born and raised in American Samoa, spent your adolescence in Saudi Arabia, and you were living and studying in Hawaii when you got cast in The Lion King. How, if at all, have these experiences of growing up and being around different cultures influenced your perception as a performer?
I think as far as my foundation of being a Pacific Islander, the fact that we pass our stories on through song and dance… I didn’t realize that in theatre, anytime I was getting too in my head about making sure I was hitting the right cues and singing the right notes, the mentors that I had gained here in the theatre have told me that, “Just go back to storytelling. That’s the entire point of what we do, is to tell a story.” That resonated with me as a Pacific Islander, because the entire point of why we sing and we dance is to tell stories, and it makes it a lot easier for me to re-connect to what I am doing. It’s just knowing that all that I am here to do is to tell a story in a song and in a dance. The script is all richly enhanced with storytelling and I’m just a vessel to be used in that moment.
What are your thoughts about the representation and inclusion of Pacific Islanders in the arts?
So when I got offered the contract to come be Mufasa on the tour, my initial reaction was to decline it. Part of being from the Pacific is you don’t want to embarrass your family at any point. I didn’t expect to get hired, and so when they offered me this position, I was petrified to show up to the company, and they may realize, “Oh, he had a good audition, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
My cousin in Hawaii was the one who told me to reach out to Nick Afoa, who plays Simba [formerly of the Sydney production of The Lion King, currently in the West End production]. I was kind of embarrassed and ashamed, but I was like, “Man, who else would understand what I’m going through?” So I messaged him on Facebook and I was like, “Hey Nick, you don’t know who I am, I don’t know who you are, but we’re both Samoan. I’m about to get hired in The Lion King. You’ve been in The Lion King for a couple of years.” I just kind of spilled my guts to him, and he wrote back the most encouraging words that really gave me the motivation I needed to get on the plane and head out to the tour and start training.
I haven’t met him yet. I would love to. We’ve been messaging like we’re brothers, but we never met face-to-face. I hope one day maybe we get a chance to meet and hopefully work together in the same production.
Can you explain how you get into the proper mindset in order to play Mufasa and how is this process compared to when you first started playing him?
When I first started playing Mufasa, I was completely engulfed with anxiety as far as hitting all my cues, like the technical side of playing the role. As I’ve gotten more accustomed to getting on stage every night, when I connect more and more with my family when I go out there, and then try to tell the story, I try to tell my story and my truth and how that intersects with Mufasa.
So there are scenes in the show that… There’s one specific scene where Mufasa has to scold Simba for disobeying him. For me, it’s such an intense moment. I’ve been there. I’ve been Simba, and I’ve been Mufasa. I know what it’s taken for an elder of mine to snap me back into reality.
So I try to channel like my grandmother specifically, who was a very strict woman who raised a lot of us in Samoa. So I think of her a lot and I think of my uncles, and the way they raised us back home. Some people might see it as a little aggressive in this day and age, but that’s just the way we were raised and that’s what I think of. I think of being back home in Samoa as a kid, what I needed to hear from my uncles and my grandparents to keep me on the path – a straight, narrow path.
It’s funny you mention that scene, because in that scene, that’s where you as Mufasa have your only song in the entire show, which is “They Live In You.” Can you explain, for those who don’t know, what that song is about and how do you go about performing it, knowing that it’s the only one you get to sing?
“They Live In You” I feel like… I mean, “Circle of Life” is an iconic song, but as far as the message for the show, I think it’s bigger than you, as it talks about how – and this intersects with what we believe as Pacific Islanders and the way I was raised – who we are right now in this moment is a product of those who came before us, right? Not just my physical manifestation, but all of my talents and the way I perceive the world is directly received from who my parents are, who my grandparents were, and who their parents were.
In “They Live In You,” he’s trying to impart this powerful message for living life that you’re representing more than just you. The part that gets me every time in this song is when he tells Simba that they literally live in you; even though your parents and grandparents pass on and you think they’re gone from this world, but they’re actually still living through you, within you.
Sometimes I have to pull myself back emotionally because I’ll catch myself thinking about my uncles and my grandparents in that moment, when Mufasa tells him, “Simba, all you need to do is look at the stars and all the kings of the past are looking down upon you, and any time you need help, you can see to them and they’re there.” I start thinking of my own family and I get a little choked up on stage and I tell myself, “You have one song to sing. Hold it together!”
It’s such a strong message for the song. I think that because it intersects with what I was raised with as a Pacific Islander, it becomes a very emotional moment for me; and a reminder for me as we travel around the country and not being able to be with my family or other Pacific Islanders, it reminds me of who I am.
With the fact that you’ve been in the The Lion King for a while, do you have a favorite part of the show?
It kind of changes. Every month, we get have to run the full show before we start in a new city, and I get a chance to watch some of the show. Lately, it’s been the scene with Sarabi, who is Mufasa’s wife, and it’s towards the end of the show. She doesn’t have many lines, but the moment where Scar, after he’s desolated the Pride Lands, comes and tells Sarabi to go hunt for more, and Sarabi is still wearing her tears from when she was mourning for her husband’s death. In that moment, she stands up to Scar. There’s so much emotion and strength I see in Sarabi when she finally stands up to Scar and tells him, “Enough! There’s nothing left in the Pride Lands,” and that he is half the king Mufasa was.
I think of the women in my life – my aunties, my mom, the women who raised me – and they faced a lot of hardships in their life for a long time, but they stayed the strongest women. They can still laugh and despite everything they’ve gone through, they’re still amazing and strong women. So for me, every time I hear that scene, I see how aggressive and strong Sarabi shows herself. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. I think of the women in my life.
I see that whenever I get to meet people all across the nation and from around the world. We have South Africans in the show and I was immediately drawn to them to see what their culture is like and how similar we are. It seems like women are the backbone of almost every society and of every people that I’ve met. It takes a very strong woman – whether they are vocal or whether you see them or not – they tend to be the ones carrying the people.
Even in the show, you see the lionesses go to hunt, and it’s one of the most beautiful scenes; as well as when the lionesses come to mourn. They’re the ones carrying the pride.
What are you looking forward to in the future for both The Lion King and your journey in performing arts in general?
I’m kind of at a crossroad right now. When I got hired in The Lion King, I was in the middle of a Master’s program in Hawaii, and I thought after a year, they’re not going to offer me another contract with The Lion King. I could go back home with some money saved up and finish school. But now I’m on my second contract, getting a chance to meet people who actually make a living in theatre and in the arts, I’m slowly allowing myself to think, “Maybe this is a possibility;” get some headshots, go out for some auditions, get an agent.
Everyone has made it very clear to me this path of being an artist is not easy, but when I went back to Hawaii to visit my sister, I got a chance to meet up with my former co-workers and my cousins and I didn’t realize this, but for a lot of Pacific Islanders, this is their dream. To see a Pacific Islander who has become successful in the arts, it’s inspiring. Beyond myself and being able to make a living, I would love to continue to pursue this path in order to make a way for other Pacific Islanders to make their way up through theatre and the arts.
Do you think you’ll ever do Broadway one day?
I’m not closed off to any opportunities. I would love to. I’m always second guessing myself like, “Am I talented enough? Am I skilled enough?” But, you know, that’s not for me to decide. You just show up to auditions and it’s up to the casting directors to decide whether or not you are what they’re looking for. And if anything else, that’s proven to me, getting this role in “The Lion King,” and I didn’t think I was anything that they were looking for. It’s not my judgment.
Is there anything else you want to add?
One thing I’m going to keep throwing out there into the universe is I’m so proud of Moana. I love what Disney has done with Moana and if they happen to create a production of Moana, I’m there if they need me.
Also, I got a chance to watch the film a couple of times and there’s a message that’s in The Lion King and in Moana that I think people don’t take notice of immediately. You know with climate change and rising sea levels and our responsibility to preserve the environment and the effect of what happens when we don’t. Like in the Pride Lands when Scar takes over and the hyenas go crazy, they literally become shadow land and everything is dry. There’s no food, there’s no water. I think we’re living in a time now we’re at a crossroad right now where we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do in the future of our planet and our natural resources.
Unfortunately, the Pacific Islands are the first to feel these effects, and I just hope it brings awareness for that. There are islands that are disappearing. You know when you see all that beauty in Moana, all that land is literally sinking. There’s something we could do about it and hopefully through theatre, I can find a way to help as well.