By Hazel Scott/ASU
Alumna/Broadway actress Bonita J. Hamilton, who plays the role of Shenzi the hyena in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “The Lion King,” is the brainchild behind a Black History Month initiative whereby the show’s “cubs” (youngsters) learn about their African-American heritage.
The highly-decorated actress, singer, voice-over artist and speaker has led the voluntary initiative for 16 years.
“As a black woman from the South…I’m in New York now… I felt like it was important, especially in this day and age where they are banning books and erasing our history and the wonderful things that our people have done,” she said.
Hamilton said when she was cast for “The Lion King” in 2004, she asked the cubs who were performing that night to give her a black history fact.
“The first thing that they said was Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. The next day I asked them to give me another name and they couldn’t. There is a long list of African Americans that have had a profound influence on America’s history and culture. I decided to introduce them to their wonderful heritage,” she added. “After all, ‘The Lion King’ is a South African show.”
The youngsters, who are ages 10-12, usually recite some facts about a black historical figure.
“Every day in February they bring me a black history fact,” she emphasized. “They teach me. I tell them I want to learn properly. So, they can’t give me half facts.”
In February, the kids honored Steve Biko, Christiaan Barnard, Louis Armstrong, Dominique Dawes, Dr. Gladys West, Harriett Tubman, Barbara Jordon, Lonnie Johnson, Phillis Wheatley Peters, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisholm, Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Michael Jordan, George Washington Carver, Angela Davis, Ethel Waters, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Abid Ali, Dorothy Height and Mabel Fairbanks, among others.
“Most importantly, we celebrated Carter G. Woodson, the man who started the tradition of celebrating black history,” she noted.
As for the children, Hamilton said they see the initiative as fun and not a challenge. “This group of cubs, as well as other cubs, have been extremely excited about the challenge, to learn more about their history.”
Hamilton’s Black History initiative has impacted generations of actors who have been part of the show.
“I have one little girl by the name of Suri Marrero. She hasn’t done the show in about five or six years. She’s a star. At the top of the month, she sends me a text saying, ‘Ms. Bonita this is my black history fact.’”
She also mentioned a black history video her former child alumni made for her. “It brought me to tears.”
Hamilton said she is committed to continuing to educate her young cubs about African-American heroes so that they will have a better understanding of where they came from and hopefully stay engaged beyond February.
““It’s good to find out whose shoulders you stand on; who paved the way for you so you are able to stand flat footed and sing on the world’s largest stage,” said Hamilton. “I always think about a quote Dr. (Tommie) Stewart (former dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts) would always say: ‘Never forget the bridge that brought you over.’ That goes hand-in-hand with knowing whose shoulders you are standing on. So, it’s important to never take it for granted.”
Hamilton said when talking about black history, she refers back to Alabama State University,
“Alabama State played a pivotal role in preparing me for moments like this. That’s where my roots are, where I got my footing, where I was able to dream a bigger dream,” she emphasized.
Bonita J. Hamilton’s 18-year tenure on Broadway includes pre-Broadway workshops for “The Color Purple,” “The Legend of Stagecoach Mary” and “Madiba the Musical.” A master storyteller, Hamilton brings words to life in her voice-over performances. Her roles include ESPN’s “NBA Countdown,” the Academy Award-nominated film “Can You Ever Forgive Me” and the animated series “Through the Woods.”