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“Lion King” ‘s Buyi Zama goes from beauty to baboon in under 25 minutes

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“Lion King” ‘s Buyi Zama goes from beauty to baboon in under 25 minutes

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When you think about the stage version of Disney’s “The Lion King,” what first comes to mind?

For some, it might be Elton John & Sir Tim Rice’s terrific score. While others might talk up the brilliant job that Julie Taymor did with staging this Tony Award-winner. Which Newsweek magazine called “ … a landmark event in entertainment.”

But – me personally – I feel what makes Disney’s “The Lion King” stand out from all of the other Broadway shows is its elaborate make-up & costumes. I mean, check out the get-up that Buyi Zama has to wear when she’s playing the role of Rafiki in this show.

Buyi Zama as Rafiki in Disnye's "The Lion King" in Las Vegas
Buyi Zama as Rafiki in the opening number "The Circle of Life" from LION KING
Las Vegas. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

It’s hard to believe that – under all that bamboo and horse hair – there’s a beautiful 33-year-old woman playing that wise old tribal shaman of the African Savannah.

Ever wonder how someone goes from being a beauty to becoming a baboon? It’s a pretty interesting process that gets started just one hour before the curtain rises on the Las Vegas Company of “Disney’s The Lion King.”

Here’s Buyi settling in to her make-up chair at 6:30 p.m. backstage at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.

Buyi Zama backstage at the Las Vegas performance of Disney's "The Lion King"
Photo by Jim Hill

Then “Lion King” make-up supervisor Juliet White steps up and – using a white make-up pencil – draws some half circle shapes around Zama’s eyes and mouth.

Buyi Zama in the process of transforming from Buyi to Rafiki
Photo by Jim Hill

Once that’s done, Julie grabs one of her brushes and – using Fardel, a special stage make-up that's made in Belgium – begins painting Buyi’s jaw line.

Buyi Zama sits in the makeup chair for 25 minutes to become Rafiki in Disney's "The Lion King"
Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, White isn’t the only one working in “The Lion King”‘s make-up room. As curtain time approaches, there are actually 5 make-up artists painting away in some pretty tight quarters. Each of them working on one of the principal performers for this show.

Buyi Zama sits in a crowded makeup room backstage at Disney's "The Lion King" musical in Las Vegas
Photo by Jim Hill

Now you might expect – with less than an hour ‘til the curtain goes up – that things would be pretty tense backstage. But the opposite was true. Jokes were flying around the make-up room when I visited this backstage area on March 17th. In fact, in honor of it being St. Patrick’s Day and all, the actors were wondering if that – just for that particular performance – they could get away with singing “Hakuna Potato” (in an Irish brogue, of course) instead of “Hakuna Matata.”

Anyway … Getting back to Zama’s transformation: Once that blue base coat is in place, Julie applies yellow make-up to the area around Buyi’s eyes. She then paints this actress’ forehead red and – through carefull brushwork –extends this color down along Zama’s nose and eventually out around her mouth.

Once these primary colors are in place, Julie paints Buyi’s eyelids white. She then adds in some black eye liner and uses some gray make-up to accent this South African actress’ brow.

Next comes the tough part. A trio of feathered white lines on each of Zama’s cheeks. Given how delicate this work is, White exhales as she paints each of these lines. Which this make-up supervisor says then steadies her hand.

Rafiki is quite the colorful character in Disney's "The Lion King" musical now playing in Las Vegas
Photo by Jim Hill

Once this is done, Julie paints 5 white dots above both of Buyi’s eyes. She then uses a special tool to outline each of these dots. And that’s it. Zama is now ready to head out of the make-up room and go put on her costume.

Buyi Zama blots her lips and is on her way to put on her Rafiki costume
My apologies for this picture being blurry. But things -- and
people -- move pretty fast backstage.
Photo by Jim Hill

“It used to take me 45 minutes to do the Rafiki make-up,” White explained. “But over time, I learned a few short cuts – like training myself to become ambidextrous. So that I can now apply make-up with both hands. Which is why I can now apply Rafiki’s make-up in just under 25 minutes.”

Mind you, when it comes to removing this elaborate character make-up, Zama is something of a speed demon herself.

“It takes me just three minutes to get all of this off,” she laughed. “I’m usually headed out the door – clean faced and ready to go – while the kids in the ensemble are still hanging around backstage in full make-up and costume.”

Of course, the reason that Buyi is moving at warp speed is that this is a woman who has places to go and people to see. Take – for example – when earlier this month, Zama was on hand at Madame Tussauds at the Venetian Hotel. When this Las Vegas attraction unveiled a new addition to its collection. Which was a wax figure of Rafiki that was modeled after Buyi herself.

Buyi Zama wraps her arm around her stage persona, Rafiki at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas
Photo by Erik Kabik. Copyright 2010 Merlin Entertainment Group. All Rights Reserved

“They took some pictures of me in the Rafiki make-up as they were working on this figure,” Zama remembered. “So to be there at the unveiling and then be able to see my own face so close in that make-up … that was very strange.”

If you’d like to check out this new Disney-themed addition to the Madame Tussauds … Well, it’s worth noting here that these Las Vegas resorts have just teamed up to make a very tempting offer. For just $90, you can get a ticket to “The Lion King” at the Mandalay Bay Hotel as well as admission to Madame Tussauds at the Venetian Hotel. That’s two of the Strip’s most popular attractions for one reasonable price.

So if you’d like the opportunity to see Buyi Zama perform live and then be able to look at her make-up job up-close, you might want the box office of Disney’s “The Lion King” a call at 877 - 632-7400 and mention offer code CL18898.

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