During February, a special ritual takes place backstage at The Lion King musical on Broadway.
On show days, the four young actors who play the lion cubs Simba and Nala seek out fellow actor Bonita J. Hamilton in the moments before the curtain goes up at the Minskoff Theatre.
The youngsters have learned their lines and choreography, of course, but during Black History Month, they also tell Hamilton what they’ve learned about a Black historical figure. It might include a birthdate, the figure’s biggest achievements and some facts about their lives.
“February is my favorite month because the children — the cubs — get to teach me about Black history,” said Hamilton, who plays the hyena leader Shenzi onstage and offstage looks after the cubs with warmth and respect. “Every day in the month of February, they bring me a Black history fact.”
Hamilton has led the voluntary ritual for 17 years and the children seem to enjoy the challenge. “Telling Miss Bonita my fact is just really fun to do,” said Sydney Elise Russell, 10, who plays young Nala.
This month, the kids have honored Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisholm, Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Michael Jordan, George Washington Carver, Angela Davis, Ethel Waters, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Height and Mabel Fairbanks, among others.
“They’re learning, I’m learning. Because I say, ‘You’re teaching me something,'” said Hamilton, a graduate of Alabama State University and Brandeis University. “You’ve got to know whose shoulders you’re standing on.”
Last Friday night, Vince Ermita, 12, who plays Simba for four performances a week, sought out Hamilton to recite what he’d lately learned online about music icon Louis Armstrong.
“Louis Armstrong was born on Aug. 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was a jazz trumpeter and vocalist, and one of the most iconic people he performed with was Ella Fitzgerald,” Vince said, without notes.
“His improvisation changed the landscape of jazz, and some of his most famous songs were What a Wonderful World, West End Blues and Hello, Dolly! And he passed away on July 6, 1971.”
Vince had clearly nailed the assignment, and Hamilton beamed. But she had a follow-up question: What was Armstrong’s nickname?
“Satchmo?” he answered.
“All right!” Hamilton exclaimed, giving him a hand slap.
The other young actors also offered their facts. Alayna Martus, 12, picked gymnast Dominique Dawes — nicknamed Awesome Dawesome — and Sydney picked writer and poet Phillis Wheatley Peters, whose most famous poem is On Being Brought from Africa to America.
Hamilton also had a question when Sydney was done: “Do you know the name of Peters’ first published book?” Sydney did not but promised to return with the answer.
“Circle back, good job. Good job, guys. Thank you. I learned something today,” said Hamilton.
The backstage February ceremonies have had a lasting impact on generations of actors who have cycled in and out of the show, under Hamilton’s charismatic leadership. This year, several former child alumni of The Lion King — led by Caleb McLaughlin of the Netflix series Stranger Things — got together to make a video for Hamilton — each submitting their Black History figures for February.
Hamilton, from Montgomery, Alabama, the home of the civil rights movement which her family aided, started the tradition after coming to The Lion King and asking her then-young co-stars about the meaning of February.
“One day, just so casually, I said, ‘It’s Black History Month, guys. Let’s talk about it. What do you know about Black History Month?’ And they said, ‘Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,'” she recalls, shaking her head. “There’s so much more to our history.”
Hamilton mixed it up a bit this year, kicking off the month by picking the names of several Black heroes from South Africa and putting them into a cup for the cubs to pick: Chris Hani, Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele and Tsietsi Mashinini, among them. The Lion King is set in South Africa, after all.
“They make me very proud. It’s like a game. It’s not anything that’s homework. Learning can be fun,” she said.
It’s a fitting ritual for a show in which Africa is celebrated and there are six Indigenous languages sung and spoken: Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Congolese.
“The Lion King is steeped in ritual tradition, tribal things. Even the fabrics that we wear in the show have tribal markings, the mask, the makeup — all of it is tribal,” said Hamilton.
The ceremony clearly honors a legacy of greatness — updated, naturally, as the inclusion of gymnast Simone Biles can attest — but also teaches the children to respect how they got here.
“They have to know that there was a time when we weren’t allowed to perform on stage or, if we were, we couldn’t walk into the front door of the theater,” said Hamilton.
“It is a privilege to be able to share your gifts on the world’s largest stage. And that’s what I try to instill in them because we weren’t always able to do it.”