When the djembe and woodblock mark in the start of “Shadowland” and the lyrics “Fatshe letsho le a Halalela” wash over the auditorium, this must be a very special moment for Tebogo Gaetsewe.
The similarity between that opening chant and the first line of the national anthem of Botswana isn’t lost on anyone who has sung it routinely before. What is different, perhaps, is that in Gaetsewe’s case, the rest of the song proceeds in French rather than the English versions heard in the Broadway or West End versions of The Lion King.
Gaetsewe’s journey to being a member of the cast of Le Rio Lion is nothing short of an inspirational story of the meeting of time, skill, desire and grit. When casting director Duma Ndlovu made a visit to Botswana in 2018 to scout for talented Batswana, he found a gem in the vibrant performer. This was, however, nowhere near the end of the entry process. Getting into a Disney theatre show requires that performers pass through three levels of auditions. Gaetsewe proved that she had the stamina to stay the course, although she admits that she attended the first audition on a whim, having heard about them by word of mouth.
A 2019 call back in Cape Town, South Africa followed a similar one in Johannesburg the preceding year. It was in South Africa’s Mother City that Gaetsewe was tasked with cementing her place, having made from being one of only three performers from Botswana to make it from the first round to presenting in front of Disney executives. She reminisces that she received sage advice from Ndlovu. “He said to me, quite frankly, ‘Don’t hold on to this audition offer for too long. Move on with your life – it can take a while before you get a job offer.’” But the offer came through. An agonizing wait would then ensue as COVID-19 travel restrictions and protocols grounded her before she could leave. Only two years later would she find herself resident in the city of love.
Making it through auditions is one thing, but having to be a working musical theatre performer is a ball game many are oblivious to. While she had years of experience performing under the moniker Debbie with a T, it was in Paris that she was awakened to the difficulty of being what is known in theatre circles as a triple threat. “I was in tears for the first few weeks”, she shrugs off with a laugh. “Imagine the fact that I am not a technically trained musical theatre performer and then I get thrown into hours and days of singing, dancing and acting sessions back to back!” An additional challenge Gaetsewe was faced with being a non-French speaker to then having to learn the language for purposes of lyrics and general survival. She is the only Motswana among the company of approximately 100 that includes South African, BaSotho, Portuguese and Italian performers with the majority being French from both the mainland and island territories.
Theatre is a very expensive business. New Musical Theatre reports that the average production budget of a Broadway musical falls between USD8 and USD12 million. This is evidenced by the recent closure announcements of hit shows like Katori Hall, Kees Prins and Frank Ketelaar’s Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and Tony Award-winners Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and Steven Leverson’s Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. Where The Lion King sets itself apart, perhaps, is in its appeal to audiences of all ages. This has allowed it to become one of the longest running shows on Broadway. As such, the French company at Théâtre Mogador have its reputation to support them. This does not, however, stop Gaetsewe from being amazed at the fact that the 1,600-seater venue has had a minimum 95 percent occupancy since they opened doors again to the public.
Beyond performing to these immense numbers of viewers in her hired role as an ensemble cast member – including as a bird, lioness, grass and hyena, to name a few, Gaetsewe carries the honour of playing one of the show’s leading roles and singing what is arguably one of the most iconic songs of all time. When Ntsepa Pitjeng, who is the principal performer, isn’t portraying Rafiki – the healer and spirit guide in the story, and “The Circle of Life” singer – the responsibility falls upon Gaetsewe or her colleague, Thulile Khize.
It didn’t take long for that aforementioned grit to earn our star the chance to do just this in front of a packed auditorium. “It really took me by surprise when I got called aside and got the directive,” she says, still with audible disbelief, relaying that “we’d just finished a rehearsal performance where I was filling in, so it meant I’d have to give my 100 percent yet again. It was a great vouch of confidence”. She has gone on to be offered more opportunities to portray Rafiki, including for a promotional performance on the show, Culturebox, for the platform france.tv. “I hope it shows the company that I am doing a good job,” she chimes with little more fortitude than doubt, though she openly confesses that the seeds of self-doubt that induced physical reactions when she first started with the taxing show pop up every once in a while but are now less frequent than before.
Working her way to being a bona fide musical theatre performer now, she offers a simple advisory that she was awakened to when she joined ‘the biz:’ “I realised that in Botswana we tend to have too many people doing roles they shouldn’t be doing, so then the quality of the work is compromised. We must realise that each department has its role and you have to spend money to get the job done well.” While Simba, Mufasa and Scar battle it out over the domination of Pride Land week in and week out, it is inspiring to know that a young woman with voice and a dream writhes and charges among the company of a remarkable show. In time, Gaetsewe’s pursuit of la vie en rose, will be as second nature to her as belting out that clarion call: “Nants’ ingonyama bagithi Baba,” declaring the arrival of a prince who would one day be a worthy king.