A Joyful "Lion King Jr." Brings Pride Rock To Nathan Hale

Lucy Gellman | July 27th, 2022

A Joyful

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Summer camp  |  Arts & Culture  |  Musical Theater  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  COVID-19  |  Nathan Hale School

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Malachi Jones as Young Simba. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The auditorium at Nathan Hale was on the edge of a stampede. And yet, something kept it at bay. 

The lionesses stood toward the back, scheming beneath their masks. Two gazelles wove in between the chairs, graceful in their orange and tan felted sleeves. The elephants hung near the piano in a knot of gray. On the stage, a lion cub beamed as a giraffe entered the fray. “Can I touch your ears?” she said in the littlest roar.

Teachers, counselors, and a multi-grade cast and crew have conjured that peaceable kingdom this summer, as they bring The Lion King Jr. to life at Nathan Hale School in the city's East Shore neighborhood. For weeks, students have been rehearsing for the play at an in-person musical theater summer camp, the second at the school since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

It is part of New Haven’s Summer of Fun, which received a second year of support through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and an additional bump from a Broadway Jr. grant from Disney Theatrical Group. Performances, which are in the school’s 480 Townsend Ave. courtyard, run Thursday through Saturday at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Tickets and more information are available here. Masks are no longer required, in keeping with a call that the New Haven Public Schools district made a few weeks ago.

“I think this is a program that’s needed,” said director Briana “Ms. B” Dawson, a drama and dance teacher at the school whose perennial smile has outlasted meltdowns, contested cast lists, cacophonous snack times, and most recently full rehearsals in full sun and 96-degree heat. “I feel like our motto should be ‘Big shows for little people,’ because we go all out.”

For any reader who has been under Pride Rock for the last 28 years, The Lion King follows the birth and adolescence of Simba, a baby lion who will one day become the king in question. Thanks to a scheming, evil and power hungry uncle named Scar (Elijah Cross), Simba loses his father Mustafa (Jermaine Cowan) and must leave the safety of his home to survive. Along the way, he is never alone: he has an adoring animal entourage, a grudging chaperone, a cute and brilliant lady friend named Nala (Yazmine Pritchett and Fiona Cox) and several ancestors looking out for him from beyond the veil.

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Top: Briana Dawson and her son, Amiel Johnson or AJ, who is in the show. Bottom: Yoshua Pritchett as a giraffe. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The musical, very much like the story it tells, has taken a harmonious team effort. For years, Dawson wanted to bring The Lion King to Nathan Hale: the musical is well loved and explosively joyful, with a plot that has withstood the test of time. After last year’s summer performance of Moana, Jr., she decided the timing was finally right. The summer musical seemed like the best fit: it invites in students from schools across the district, rather than just Nathan Hale. Of 45 students she hoped to get, 30 students signed up for the program.

While ARPA funding made it completely free for New Haven kids, the grant from Disney covered the show kit, the rights to the musical, and the online platform for ticket sales. A crew of teachers and professional artists also hopped onboard, including Nathan Hale band director Arick Lyde, musician Stephen “Gritz” King, and Mauro-Sheridan Inter-district Magnet School teacher Emily Roberson among others.

As one young actor said, Dawson has found and followed her herd—and students have too.

Last Friday, many of them scurried through the hallways, trying out their costumes for the first time. In the cafeteria, students finished slices of watermelon, washed their hands and faces and headed toward the costume racks in groups, waiting for someone to call the elephants, hyenas, lionesses and gazelles. As sun streamed through the windows, a soon-to-be lion cub stomped their feet and protested: they didn’t want to get their costume on.

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Lucy Gellman Photos.

“You gotta come get your costume on, girlfriend!” Dawson exclaimed, offering her open hands. Within seconds, counselors—some of whom are Nathan Hale alumni—walked her out of the room, and toward a neat rack of costumes.

In the auditorium, students circulated around the room, checking in with each. First grader Yazmine Pritchett, who plays young Nala, jogged over to her castmates, asking for help with an untied shoe, a suddenly-too-long tail, a headband with cat ears that felt too tight. When her older brother Yoshua came out dressed as a giraffe, she stopped speaking mid sentence and ran to the stage to admire his costume.

As a student at Highville Charter School, Yazmine said she likes the role because she gets to hide mischievously from Zazu (Lillyanna Dunbar) and be friends with young Simba (Malachi Jones)—a skill she expects that will make her better at hide and seek in the new school year. It's also given her a chance to bond with her big brother, who Friday was often by her side. 

Jumping jarringly from the Pride Lands back into the real world, she added that she thinks the role will better prepare her for school lockdown drills, which she said have become a routine part of her school year.

“Singing just makes me feel good,” Malachi chimed in, and they were back in Simba’s universe. One day, he said, he hopes to perform professionally.

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Jermaine Cowan. Lucy Gellman Photos.

As their peers entered the auditorium through a backstage door, they got whoops, cheers, and applause, as if the school building itself was transforming into the Pride Lands for which the 1994 Disney film and following musical are known. Jermaine Cowan, a rising seventh grader at Bishop Woods Architecture & Design Magnet School who plays Mufasa (“the actual lion king,” he said matter-of-factly), said the play has helped him both “relax a bit” and grow into himself.

After playing ​​the fierce, funny demigod Maui in Moana Jr. last year, he said he’s embracing the role as a chance for personal growth. When he put the costume on for the first time last Friday, something clicked.

“I was very shy when I came into the camp,” he said. “Being Mufasa, I’m in charge all of the time. So I’m working on my self-confidence … camp is really cool and fun. You meet a lot of new people and you don’t gotta worry about bullies.”

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Top: Gabriella Osborn. Bottom: Francesca Morra, Mya Lucky, and Lillyanna Dunbar and Yazmine Pritchett (in front). Lucy Gellman Photos.

Hanging several rows back from the stage, friends Francesca Morra, Mya Lucky, and Lillyanna Dunbar traded a few dramatic notes before slipping into costumes themselves. For all three of them, it’s a sign that things are returning to a new normal, however different it may be from what they were once used to.

Mya, a sixth grader at Amistad Academy Middle School, recalled watching her grades drop during remote learning, only to have them rise again once she was back in the classroom. She sees the play—the second summer production in person, and the first without masks—as an extension of coming back to in-person learning. Like school, the play has also given her new friendships, and a few life lessons.

“I learned that you don’t have to take everything so serious,” she said. She added that she’s especially excited about the choreography, because she loves dancing. A lot of the cast members do, too.

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“Zazu is way more crazy than I am,” said Nathan Hale students Lillyanna Dunbar.

Lillyanna, who plays the anxiety-riddled and curmudgeonly red-billed hornbill Zazu, added that she’s excited for opening night. Because she is a rising eighth grader at Nathan Hale, the play will be one of her last chances to act with her friends before she goes to high school. The role has pushed her to relax and embrace her fun side, she said—especially because “Zazu is way more crazy than I am.”

“I feel like I get why we’re doing the show,” Francesca chimed in. “I love dancing and singing. It really helps me think about what I want to do when I grow up.”

Some of the students have challenged themselves to think differently about the characters they are playing. Elijah Cross, an eighth grader at Nathan Hale who plays Scar, is normally the jokester in his classes—but often goes for the evil roles in theater. When he’s onstage, “it takes me a minute to get into the zone,” he said. This summer marks a first for him: he’s never sung a solo in front of an audience before, which he will with Scar’s maniacally sinister “Be Prepared.”

“I’m learning that acting is not always as easy as it looks,” he said. “I love being around everyone in the cast.”      

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Marlowe Montuori, Fiona Cox,  Kiera Vergara and Corrine Maddox. Lucy Gellman Photos.

At one point, a gazelle sighed from somewhere in the pack, exasperated by how real the sprawling Pride Lands and parched desert through which Simba must wander suddenly seemed. She extended her newly-costumed arms, cloaked in a thin, tan felt with a matching tan cap, and made an unmasked face.

Dawson stopped what she was doing onstage and turned her head to the students, addressing the two dozen students in front of her.

“You are all playing animals,” she said. “There’s no such thing as an ugly costume.” 

Out in the hallway, that energy buzzed and flitted through the space, bounding down its brightly lit length. By the cafeteria, Gabriella Osborn transformed into a friendly Pumbaa, suddenly unable to sit down as an oxblood-colored warthog costume hung from their torso. A rising seventh grader at Nathan Hale, Gabriella said the role has instilled in them a sense of assertiveness that wasn’t there before the show. 

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Nathan Hale band director Arick Lyde, who stayed on to teach music over the summer. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Along the way, students have never stopped learning. Disney provided a full curriculum, from artmaking suggestions to language tutorials in Swahili, Zulu, and Xhosa. Before closing the show, students will decorate wooden dowels that came with the costumes, and hang them on djembes that remain at the school well after Pride Rock has been packed up and put into storage.

Nowhere was their pride in the show clearer than students’ Friday afternoon costume parade, now a tradition in the program. As they queued up in the school’s long first-floor hallway, elephants and zebras shared space with a lone giraffe, two cheetahs, and a pack of lionesses and small, costumed cubs. Several of the actors held out their hands to their younger castmates as the sun beat down on the sprawl of grass.

The triumphant opening notes—Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!, which is Zulu—pierced the air, coasting over the school’s grassy courtyard. They spilled out toward the water and dipped back into the building, where lunchboxes and backpacks still sat discarded across the cafeteria. 

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In a line, students walked from the doors of the school through the courtyard. Some waved; others danced as they moved through the grass, suddenly their animal selves. After worrying over the costume, Mya sang along to every word. Opening night was so close they could feel it.

Back in the auditorium, Lyde was assigning ensemble members to songs that needed more voices before they were ready to go (“it’s a lot of trial and error,” he said). Her hyena costume back in storage, rising eighth grader Gia Dupuis said that the role has taught her to “stay calm under pressure” and to be a better anchor to her team.

Closer to the stage, Roberson and King made sure students had put their costumes away, and then ran through a wistful, resonant take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” that had Roberson leaning into the piano, but looking out at the room. Afterwards, she praised both Dawson and the students for helping her grow as an educator.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” she said. “I love these kids. We’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but it feels like much longer. Theater brings people together.” 

Performances of the Lion King Jr. run at Nathan Hale School, 480 Townsend Ave., July 28 through July 30 at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here.