A happy cacophony filled the spacious Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center lobby last week as a crowd of young artists anticipated the arrival of four lions, a laughing hyena and a dancing gazelle.
The chatter turned into cheers and applause the moment those gathered found themselves face to face with the talented people who portray Simba, Scar, Nala and other characters in the award-winning musical “The Lion King,” which is currently at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.
“I thought this was the coolest experience,” said Deanna Bobo, one of the high school students who snagged a front-row seat for the question-and-answer session with the cast members. “To have the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories of how they got to this point is just inspiring to me.”
Bobo, whose primary focus at Grand Center Arts Academy is musical theater, was one of more than 70 local teens – plus UMSL’s own University Singers – who attended the April 26 “Lunch and Learn” spearheaded and moderated by UMSL alumnus Brian Owens, community music artist in residence for the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative.
Owens has a knack for bringing together a variety of community partners to provide exceptional arts-focused opportunities for St. Louis young people. This particular effort stemmed from a conversation with his assistant earlier this spring.
“I just kind of planted the seed,” said Maria Ellis, a graduating UMSL music major who has worked closely with Owens in recent years as a St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON fellow. “I said to him, ‘Hey, you know Sophia Stephens. Why don’t we do a Lunch and Learn?’”
Stephens, who plays Sarabi, the mother of Simba, in the show, grew up in north St. Louis County and got her start in the professional theater world with The Black Rep. Owens ran the idea past her, and Stephens was delighted to help.
Asked as a group why they made the outreach effort a priority during their busy stay in St. Louis, the six cast members emphasized that it’s important for younger artists to see what is possible and to interact with people they can relate to who are making their way in the world and on the stage.
Talking with Owens leading up to the event also had an impact, added Stephens.
“He said, ‘What good is success if we don’t share it?’” she recalled.
And share they did, with each of the actors answering questions about who they looked up to growing up, how they approach their work and more.
The first question, though, was one that Owens asked of the audience members themselves: What does it mean to be a leader? Countless hands went up.
“Being able to be the outcast.”
“Setting an example for everyone else.”
“Not being afraid to do what’s right.”
Owens then turned to the cast members for their thoughts on leadership, and Gerald Ramsey, who plays Mufasa, the king, said it starts with service.
Originally from the island of Aunu’u in American Samoa, Ramsey said he looks up to his grandfather, who is chief of the small village where Ramsey grew up and known for helping others, working hard and being faithful.
“That’s the kind of leader I want to be,” Ramsey told the crowd at UMSL. “That’s the kind of person and the kind of Mufasa I try to portray on stage. My grandfather is the most respected person in the village because he’s leading by example.”
Persistence was another theme of the conversation, with the actors opening up about some of the obstacles they’ve encountered and overcome over the course of their individual journeys.
Dashaun Young, who plays Simba, was frequently told during casting calls that he was too short. Mark Campbell, who plays Scar, had the opposite problem.
“The first time I went in they said, ‘You’re too tall,’” Campbell recalled.
Tiffany Denise Hobbs, who plays Shenzi, the female hyena, went to many open calls in New York City and still remembers the wonderful moment when she got the call from “The Lion King” during a jog in Central Park. And Kevin Petite, who has now been with the touring cast for six years and is a dancer in the show, auditioned for it four times before seeing success.
“The fourth time I learned how to sing before I went,” he said with a smile.
Campbell touched on the universal nature and resonance of the story that “The Lion King” tells.
“The arts have to speak truth to power,” he said, “and I think it’s important to show how appealing evil can be. ‘The Lion King’ is a simple story, but it has great importance. … It’s about fathers and sons, good kings and bad kings.”
He added that society doesn’t value the arts enough in his view.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that the arts aren’t powerful and important, because they are,” Campbell told the crowd.
For some of the older students in attendance – the UMSL singers – one of the best parts of the event was simply seeing how eager the cast members were to speak with the younger students and answer their questions.
Seth Harris, a junior music education major, found their stories a welcome reminder that “anyone can make it big and achieve their dreams.”
“I also think it’s great that UMSL helps create these opportunities for high school and college students, because it is a great source of inspiration for those that might not normally have the chance to see such high-profile people,” he said.
Stephen A. Day, a junior business major at UMSL, agreed.
“Opportunities like this are ones that many of us students, no matter how old we are or where we are from, have only dreamed of,” Day said. “It gives us a chance to see these famous actors as regular people, and we get to hear their story about their struggles on the road to recognition.”
Dwayne Buggs, artistic director for Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, accompanied 29 CVPA students to the event, and both he and GCAA theater teacher Brandon Riley said that many of their students find an experience like this quite moving as well as informative.
“We also got to see the final dress rehearsal [at the Fox],” Riley noted, “and as soon as the animals walked on stage, they started tearing up.”
For Ellis, who coordinated the event with GCAA, CVPA and Normandy High School, the successful effort was another great chance to put the skills she’s developing to use as she looks toward jumping into a full-time position with the St. Louis Children’s Choirs after graduation later this month.
“As a music teacher, you have to wear so many different hats,” Ellis said. “It’s not just notes.”