Umlazi, South Africa Lindiwe Dlamini laughs and wriggles in her seat.
It is a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon. The actress sits on a bench in the church her deceased father, the Reverend Samuel Dlamini, built in Umlazi a township on the outskirts of the city of Durban on the east coast of South Africa. The room is packed with kids from the community. And two light-footed, sweet-faced, intense preteen ballroom dancers sweep across the room to enormous applause.
After the performance, Lindiwe stands in the courtyard and indicates with her arms the three small buildings that make up the church’s property, along with all the teens buzzing in and around them, and says quietly, “This is why I do what I do.”
You see, Lindiwe is not just any actress, but a South African actress renowned in some Broadway circles as the longest-performing cast member of Disney’s The Lion King. The highest-grossing Broadway show of all time celebrates its 25th anniversary on November 13.
And the activity at her father’s church is the result of philanthropic support that stretches from New York City’s theater community to this haven for young artists.
On the need to give back
The church, which is simply named Evangelical Church and is situated between Thandanani and Masakhane roads, anchors Lindiwe’s annual sojourns to her hometown.
“I always go to the church when I come to Durban,” she says on this warm afternoon. “I go to sit with my brother outside. We just put out the chairs, and then sit there and look at the cars driving around [and] we see the kids … it reminds me of those times [with my father].”
She sighs, “I get so happy when I'm here.”
Her brother, the Reverend Lungani Dlamini, the one she often sits with, took over the pulpit to continue their father’s legacy when he passed away 23 years ago.
“Our father’s vision was to see the community flourishing,” says Lungani.
And flourishing it is.
Not only does the performance on this day include ballroom dancers, it also features a quintet of young men singing soulful a capella gospel songs and a group of dancers doing acrobatics to pounding drums and shouts from an appreciative crowd.
All these performers represent the kind of talent that abounds in the township, despite the lingering perception among some that this community is barren of creativity and overflowing with crime and poverty—a perception that harkens back to the apartheid era and negative attitudes toward Black South Africans. Townships were created during a time when people of different races could not live in the same areas and became isolated places with little opportunity for advancement. But now, townships arguably house some of the best and brightest that South Africa has to offer, especially large townships like Umlazi, which has grown over the years and counts about 400,000 residents over an area of about 30 square miles.
Lindiwe’s husband, Bongi Dumi, also a longtime cast member of The Lion King and a child of Umlazi, feels the tug to support up-and-coming artists here too. They keep it quiet, but together, the couple helps direct about $100,000 in annual funding from Broadway Cares, a nonprofit that collects money and donates it to the church and other South African arts organizations.
The duo also plans to build their own arts center in the nearby rural area to provide young people with even less resources than those in the township access to global opportunities.
Lindiwe tried out for The Lion King in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1997, and since being cast, has clocked in around 9,000 performances. That adds up to about a show or two every weekday for two-and-a-half decades, but who’s counting?
Lindiwe certainly isn’t. ”I remember them celebrating and putting it on a Playbill at some point, but I can’t remember the number,” she says. Clearly, she is not out to gain fame as a record holder.
No, Lindiwe works so hard, doing show after show because it is what she loves. She has been at it since she was a kid growing up in this very township with her singing mom, worship leader and musician dad, and six talented brothers and sisters.
“We had a band and were just performing around as a family for anything—weddings, any event,” says Lindiwe.
She got her big break at age 18 in the South African play Sarafina, a musical that opened at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986, and that tells the story of Soweto schoolchildren fighting the injustices of apartheid.
“The director that started Sarafina came to our house, to my father, because he heard about these kids who were singing. And he came and auditioned us,” Lindiwe says. She and several of her siblings became original cast members and spent more than four years touring with the show.
Sarafina got Lindiwe from Durban to Johannesburg, and eventually to New York, where the cast performed at the Cort Theatre (now James Earl Jones Theatre) on Broadway for more than a year. After Sarafina closed, it took almost seven more years to book her next gig with The Lion King, but what a gig.
Lindiwe still loves performing in The Lion King. She plays the lioness, the hyena and other ensemble characters that wear elaborate beaded costumes and get to go wild on stage. “Every time I’m on stage,” she says, “I give it my all.”
In its 25-year span, the show has won six Tony awards, eight Drama Desk awards and even a Grammy.
Lindiwe thinks The Lion King has been so successful because it offers a universal message. “Even though we’re playing animals, everybody can enjoy it. In the show you experience loss, marriages, headaches … all the things. We make audiences feel better.”
The Lion King is also a story steeped in the beats and melodies of South African music, and it features the talents of 10 other South African cast members, including Lindiwe’s husband, Bongi, who has been a cast member for 15 years, and her sister, Ntomb’khona Dlamini, who has been on and off the show since the beginning. In this way, the show has become an extension of home.
As a South African expat living in the United States, Lindiwe relies on her community of The Lion King theater peers to help make sense and meaning during uncertain times.
“It's very comforting—the atmosphere, the people that you work with … especially the people of color,” she says when asked about surviving the pandemic and the recent racial tensions in the United States.
“Like, I remember when the George Floyd thing was happening, we were very comfortable talking with each other and expressing ourselves,” Lindiwe says. “You need that to be okay, or you could become depressed.”
On love and relationships
And of course she also has her husband, who shares both worlds.
They understand each other. Both are easygoing and prone to bursts of laughter, but Bongi is perhaps a wee more outgoing and Lindiwe a tad more serious.
The two met on Bongi’s first day as a cast member.
“Oh, I knew her brothers,” says Bongi when asked how he felt about their first encounter. “I used to go to [her father’s’] church and play instruments and listen to music,” says Bongi who was born in Umlazi and was a musician and a composer before he became an actor. “And her brothers would speak of their sisters who were in America.”
“I never thought I would meet her,” he says.
But after that first meeting, friendship blossomed, sparks eventually flew and soon they were married and creating their own blended family—Lindiwe’s son and daughter from a previous relationship and their now 14-year-old daughter.
Lindiwe says she and Bongi keep a strict line between work and home life.
“I told him, once we get to the [theater] doors, I don't know you. You don't know me,” she says.
“Some people who join the show won't know we've been married for 15 years. A lot of people are shocked—like, wait, wait, wait,” she laughs.
So how does the local community view these well-regarded, philanthropic actors?
Lungani, the reverend brother, says most in the township don’t know what Bongi and Lindiwe are doing or have any idea about Lindiwe’s legacy on stage. “There’s nothing to recognize them here. Most South Africans don’t know about Broadway.”
Bongi says that is true. “People don’t know who we are,” he says. “We don’t put ourselves out there in that sense.”
And it doesn’t matter to Lindiwe anyway. She never imagined that this would be her life, that a musical play like The Lion King would be a thing that helps define her. Not only is she not concerned about being a record holder, but she also doesn’t care to be famous. “I don’t want them to see me as a celebrity. I just want them to see Lindiwe.”
But she is grateful that the show brought her father to New York City and that he got to see her in all her shine on Broadway. He came with her mother in 1998 to watch the show. Then, about a year later, he passed away from kidney failure.
“He got to see it,” Lindiwe says. “He got to see it. And he loved it!”
What might he think of this long Broadway stint?
“He would be so proud that I’m still in the show,” Lindiwe says.
She thinks that on this 25th anniversary her father would be sitting right there in the audience cheering and laughing.
And just maybe all around him would be rows of kids from Evangelical Church, young people from throughout Umlazi and around Durban, also cheering and laughing, preparing to make their own Broadway dreams come true.