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Transforming actors into animals

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012, at 3:38 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012, at 4:24 p.m.

It’s 7 p.m., one hour until curtain, and Buyi Zama is in the makeup chair, right on time for her most inflexible appointment of the day.

The principal actors in “The Lion King” know better than to be late for makeup. Even a minute or two’s tardiness can throw off the entire tribal makeup assembly line that will transform eight actors into lions, baboons and birds.

Zama, who plays the wise baboon Rafiki in the production, has the most complex makeup of all the main characters — a palette of primary colors that makeup artist Valerie Anderson carefully applies night after night, using a special German-manufactured, water-based stage paint.

It dries quickly and stays in place pretty well, provided the actor doesn’t sweat.

“I don’t sweat,” Zama says, batting her eyelashes, bordered on all sides by bright yellow paint. “I’m a lady.”

Zama, a South African native who belts the recognizable opening notes to the show — “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” (Zulu for “Here comes a lion”) — is among the first five of the principal actors due in the makeup chair each performance night.

On this night — an August evening in St. Louis, where the show played before making its way to Wichita — she’s in the makeup room setup in the backstage bowels of the historic Fox Theatre. The show at this point is halfway through a two-and-a-half week run.

The makeup artists, who include three employed by the production and two hired locally to work during the run, are crammed into a tight makeshift salon featuring five adjustable chairs and five mobile makeup stations, each decorated differently by its owner.

To Zama’s left is Zavion Hill, the 9-year-old actor who portrays young Simba. His hair is styled in a mess of tight braids, and he’s having triangles of red paint applied to his back and neck. To her right is Kailah McFadden, who portrays young Nala, an orange dotted stripe running down the center of her face with a bright blue flower painted on her cheek.

Also in chairs are Brent Harris, getting a face full of orange and black for his portrayal of villain Scar, and Mark David Kaplan, whose vibrant blue-and-white face will provide the narration for chatty bird Zazu.

There’s not much room to move, and there’s not much talking. The actors must stay still while their faces are created. Soothing, tribal-sounding electronica music fills the room.

Anderson, assigned to Zama, is a Junction City native who was picked up by the touring production of “The Lion King” when she worked as a local helper in Kansas City in 2008. She’s been with the show ever since and now is tasked each night with creating not only Rafiki’s face but also the all-over green of the actor who plays Timon and the lioness golden hues of adult Nala.

Applying the makeup for Rafiki takes about a half an hour.

Holding a painter’s palette and thick brushes, Anderson begins by applying bright blue paint along each of Zama’s lower cheeks and her lower jaw. Once that’s perfect, she paints a fountain of red along the top of Zama’s forehead, trailing it down the center of her nose and circling her mouth.

She applies a streak of bright yellow under Zama’s eyelids, then a thick black line above the lid that swirls upward.

Anderson then fills in the rest of Zama’s face with vibrant yellow, coating her outer nostrils and the area all around her eyes, including thick paint caking her eyebrows. She applies three white stripes on each of Zama’s blue cheeks, then creates four dime-sized blue circles on each side of her face, just above her eyebrows, filling in the centers with white. A liner of sparkly gold is painted along the Zama’s top lip, and a smudge of gold also goes in the center of her lower lip. A few more accents here and there, and she’s done.

She begins preparing her palette of green for Timon’s impending arrival, and he’s right on time, waiting outside the door.

Zama poses playfully, showing off her transformed face. Rafiki is there, and Zama — who a half hour ago was playfully comparing notes on her P90X workout progress with her fellow cast members — is gone.

The job is fun, Anderson says, admitting that the most difficult part is packing up all the products when it’s time to move to the next city.

“I’m doing what I love to do,” Anderson says. “You can’t hate your job when you’re doing what you love to do.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or at dneil@wichitaeagle.com.

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