The Scars On The Dark Continent

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - November 07, 2007
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Last night I saw The Lion King, “Broadway’s Award-Winning Best Musical.” Nearly three years in the planning and doing, it seemed as if West Coast Entertainment had literally brought Broadway to Honolulu. It was a kaleidoscopic explosion of African color, song and dance, of emotion, humor and fun. And an hour or so of reflection this morning brought some deeper thoughts I felt worth sharing.

First, there’s Walt Disney, the American icon of creative genius upon whose shoulders the creators of Lion King stood. Upon my return from Vietnam, my children “took me” to Disney World for a week. The Disney ethos of quality, wholesome fun and American entrepreneurial creativity that can only come through freedom was in such mind-boggling contrast to the dreary, stifling atmosphere of the communist prison in which I’d spent the previous seven years. I still wear the Mickey Mouse watch I bought there as a reminder to always appreciate that contrast, and to never take myself too seriously.

Although seven decades away from the legacy of Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Pluto, The Lion King is one in a long line of children’s movies, from Fantasia (I saw at age 6) to Bambi to Cinderella to Aladdin to Nemo and most recently Ratatouille. The wholesome values of Disney’s animated characters comprise one of the few common threads linking our own youth and that of our children and grandchildren. Disney character books, dolls, caps and PJs - like ice cream cones - have always been in our lives. But now Lion King, from screen to stage, is a quantum leap.

The staging and the costumes depicting the flora and fauna of the African plain are cleverly whimsical, taking the creativity of theatre to an unprecedented level. The uncanny depiction and movement of lions, giraffes, zebras, gazelle, rhino and birds remind us that God must have created African animals - like orchids and tropical fish - just for fun.

Like most Disney stories, The Lion King is patterned after the classic “heroes journey,” where Simba, the princely lion cub, is loved and tutored by his father, Mufasa, the good King of the Pridelands. Showing his strong will, Simba disobeys his father when he and his tomboy playmate, Nala, go to the forbidden Elephant Graveyard where they encounter Scar, Mufasa’s evil, jealous brother, and his cohort of bullying hyenas. While rescuing the children, Mufasa is killed when Scar pushes him into the path of stampeding buffalos, and then convinces Simba his father’s death is his fault and to go far away from the Pridelands and never return. Of course, Scar ascends to the throne, where his selfishness allows over-hunting of the Pridelands, the river goes dry, and his lion kingdom descends into hunger and despair.

While in banishment, Simba gains skill and perspective, and grows into a “manly” young lion. Nala, now a headstrong beauty, learns from Rafiki, the shaman, that Simba is still alive. She tracks him down and tells him of the plight of his pride, convincing him to return with her - a decision made easier by the animal attraction between them. Upon his return, Simba - before dispatching Scar - forces him to admit that he, and not Simba, was responsible for Mufasa’s death. Simba, the new Lion King, restores prosperity and beauty to the Pridelands, and soon he and Nala produce Simba Jr., whose birth is celebrated with joy and pride by the entire animal ensemble as the finale. The moral of the story is unequivocally clear: Good triumphs over evil.

But sadly, the play is also an ironic metaphor for modern-day Africa, where good triumphs over evil less often. Among Africa’s political elite there are too many “Scars” surrounded by the hyenas of greed and corruption, and too few “Mufasas” promoting pride and progress. The Dark Continent is in dire need of emerging “Simbas” to bring light to the people. We pray that the message of The Lion King will somehow be heard and embraced there.

But I notice by my Mickey Mouse watch that it’s time to get this column in. Thanks, Walt!

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