The Lion Queen(s)

Simba's understudy is in repose. Brandon -- a beautiful, 28-year-old, lithe black man with a lighter-than-café au lait complexion -- relaxes in Suite 1606 after a Sunday performance of The Lio

May 14, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Simba's understudy is in repose. Brandon — a beautiful, 28-year-old, lithe black man with a lighter-than-café au lait complexion — relaxes in Suite 1606 after a Sunday performance of The Lion King.

He's nursing a cold. Still, when prodded to he breaks into a stirring a cappella rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Too Shy to Say."

His voice embodies the Jazz shadings of Al Jarreau's, but richer, with a Gospel vibrato around its edges. He jumps and lands on me with a full-body hug when I name Wonder's album: Fulfillingness' First Finale.

"That's it! That's it!"

Brandon, also a rhinoceros in the musical, says with few exceptions the cast — dancers, understudies, singers — is mainly black.

"That's a trip," he says. "Disney hires a whole bunch of black people like that."

Then he waxes politic about the legacy of Disney's portrayal of blacks in the studio's string of animated classics. He says every minority population melting in the pot is represented as people — Asians in Mulan, Native Americans in Pocahontas, Hawaiians in Lilo and Stitch and, before them, South Asian Indians in Jungle Book — but not Negroes.

"Never has Disney put out a cartoon where you get to see African Americans on screen as they are — human beings," Brandon says. Then, honoring the performer's DNA, his words segue into song from Dumbo.

"Remember that? That character was a raven, was a crow," he says, laughing.

There's one more week of Lion King performances. Some in the cast are tired of Cincinnati. It's got everything and nothing to do with the city. Accustomed to nomadic lifestyles and new landscapes, they're ready to move on.

"I fuckin' hate Cincinnati," says Tyrone, a 20ish, chocolate-colored dancer from Chicago built like a stocky jockey whose urban elegance is reminiscent of the actor Don Cheadle. "Like, I don't even wanna be here anymore. I don't even want to go outside."

Tyrone's frustration is rooted in his friskiness. He's injured and travels with the company, taking physical therapy with little else to do while the others perform. He bops around like popcorn in an air popper, stopping briefly to model his Lion King backpack.

Tyrone is a tumbleweed defying Debbie Allen. He lands on a different part of his delicate feet with each return to Earth.

He's in a festive mood because they're throwing a party, and over chicken wings, chips and dip, lasagna and liquor it's obvious they're tight as family. There's no discernable animosity, jealousy or bitchiness among them — a rarity in a company wherein each cast member is slightly more talented and beautiful than the one before.

Monday's an off day, so Sunday night is Friday night. And this homemade Happy Hour lasts through Monday's sunrise.

Twenty or so beautiful black singers and dancers swap rooms in The Garfield Suites. Food and liquor are laid out in Suite 1608, where the heart of the party beats.

Some loll Twister-style on the floor, their bodies in a lattice work relief map of multi-hued and toned bodies that were, only hours before, slathered in the make-up and costumes of Julie Taymor's black and tan fantasy.

The women aren't as warm as the men, all of whom are openly gay. Except for a friendly nod and subsequent "Nice to meet you" from a wild-maned woman with a dancer's body, the women don't engage interlopers. They're ensconced in the shade tree Lion King.

Instead, they do that thing all women do automatically but black women do with diamond-cutting accuracy. They do the Size Up.

They assess based on aesthetics and ignore you in one fell sideways glance.

"They're probably all divas," my friend says. Rightfully so, I think.

But the real divas are the men.

Cornelius — short, muscular and brown — descends the steps in a Sly Stone-era Afro wig, J-Lo sunglasses and a dashiki dress. A glittery orange flower festoons his hair. A matching one bounces on a toe.

Gary — tall, light-skinned with an ass like two firm cantaloupes — gives us Whitney Houston, replete with a brow-mopping handkerchief. His black catsuit sparkles and his toes hang over strappy wooden stilettos, gripping the edges like fingers.

Soon after most rise, kiss, hug and exchange good-byes. Some dance in a Soul Train line to the door.

Back in Suite 1606, Jason, Tyrone's roommate, puts in a DVD of Austin Powers in Goldmember. He says he's in a dance sequence with Britney Spears.

And there he is — black, tall, dreadlocked and shirtless, lifting Spears into a Vegas twirl followed by some leaps and spins.

As I write this I haven't yet seen the production. But I've seen the production.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.