When the curtain lifts at the Minskoff Theatre in New York, Tshidi Manye’s voice sweeps over 1 600 people, leaving barely a dry eye in the house.
In character as the oracle Rafiki, Manye has opened the hit musical, The Lion King, with the song The Circle of Life, on Broadway – New York’s theatre district – since 2004.
“Adults are the first to cry when that curtain goes up and I start singing,” she told City Press in the theatre’s foyer earlier this month.
This show [The Lion King] is not just for children. I feel like every adult has a little kid in them.
Tshidi Manye, who plays Rafiki
The 51-year-old actress was raised in Mofolo in Soweto, the daughter of Clifford Manye and Thandi Zulu, a famous playwright.
As a child she sang in her mother’s plays and in church, not dreaming her talent would be her ticket to a red-carpet life on the other side of the world.
“Growing up I wanted to be a social worker. I love helping people, making people feel comfortable,” she says.
Now, through her voice, Africa comes alive on a New York stage to standing ovations six nights a week.
Manye sends money back to South Africa every month and has paid for three youngsters in her family to attend university, with three more to go.
“Their parents can’t do it. I have the means to help, so why not?”
Earlier this year industry newsletter The Wrap announced The Lion King was Broadway’s highest-grossing production, with earnings of $1.48 billion (R21.8bn). Based on the 1994 Disney animated film – with music by composer Lebo M, Elton John and Hans Zimmer – the award-winning musical features five of South Africa’s official languages.
It was third time lucky for Manye, who auditioned for The Lion King three times.
“At the audition for Rafiki, I had butterflies in my stomach; I left the room feeling so embarrassed. But as I was leaving I saw Lebo M and he said to me, ‘You did a great job, you did an amazing job!’” she says.
For the part of Rafiki, Manye says she draws on her personal and family roots.
You have to put yourself in your character’s shoes. In my family we have sangomas, my niece is a sangoma and my cousin, too. They go through this sangoma transformation. I always watched them and now, as Rafiki on stage, I kind of copy them
It is Manye’s grandmother’s old remedy of turmeric, lemon, ginger and water from boiled potatoes, that keeps her vocal chords in top shape.
“I have been drinking this mix for the past three years and I haven’t had a cold,” she says. “I also eat a lot of garlic, especially in winter. I like to go back to my roots. Little things like that remind me of home.”
Although Manye has lived in the US for the past 13 years, she still calls Johannesburg “home”. She and her 22-year-old son Mpho visit family in Joburg and Durban whenever time allows.
Sadly, Manye’s parents died before they could watch her light up the stage abroad.
“In 2005 my mother was supposed to visit. That’s when she started getting sick. She was going to come here to see what I was doing, but then passed away. Now she can see with a better eye though. I know she watches from upstairs, I know she is proud.”
In her dressing room, before shows, Manye listens to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba to help her get into the mood to perform.
“For me, that’s my time to meditate. In my mind, I prepare for the show. I think of people who will be seeing it for the first time. I think of how they will react. How I’m going to deliver my story.”
Tshidi Manye as the oracle Rafiki. Picture: Joan Marcus
Off stage life in New York is fast – and Manye is quick to keep up.
“It really is the fast lane here and you can’t let a single day go by,” she says. “For example, apart from my work, right now I’m signing up for sewing classes; I want to start making my own clothes. Next week I will do jewellery design. I also do yoga.”
Manye and Mpho live in Jersey City, a 30-minute commute from the Minskoff Theatre.
Her advice to young performers? Keep pushing.
“No matter what it is you want, just focus, keep that light shining, keep pushing,” she says.
“As I said, I auditioned three times before all this happened. Sometimes when we don’t get something immediately, it’s not the universe saying ‘no’. It’s the universe saying ‘not right now’. That’s when you keep going.”