At the end of February, BC/EFA awarded $140,000 to 17 AIDS service organizations across South Africa, bringing the cumulative total to more than $3 million in grants to 51 South African organizations made since 1998 through the tireless fundraising efforts of Disney’s acclaimed production of The Lion King.
This marks a significant milestone in a long-term partnership between the landmark Tony Award-winning musical and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, made possible by the tremendous commitment and generosity of the hundreds of theatrical professionals on stage, backstage and behind the scenes at the productions of The Lion King on Broadway and across the country.
Currently in its fourteenth year since opening November 13, 1997, the Broadway production of The Lion King and subsequent national touring productions have raised a total of more than $5.5 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS with over $3 million going to South Africa and an additional $2.5 million awarded to AIDS and family service organizations across the United States.
In recognition of this extraordinary fundraising and in honor of the many South African company members who have joined their American cast mates in these efforts, BC/EFA has sent at least 50 percent of the monies raised by The Lion King companies – totaling $3,031,000 to date – to dozens of AIDS and family service organizations in South Africa, a country beset with the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world.
“Well over 200 South African actors have worked onThe Lion King over the course of its life and they are at the heart and soul of the show,” said Thomas Schumacher, Producer and President Disney Theatrical Productions and longtime BC/EFA Trustee. “It is humbling to realize what our Lion King family has been able to give back to their glorious country. Though Disney proudly supports BC/EFA on many levels, this staggering achievement is the result of hundreds of dedicated individuals from all nations working tirelessly, selflessly and on their own accord. We stand in awe of their accomplishment.”
The idea started simply enough. In January 1998, a few weeks after The Lion King opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre to the rapturous response of critics and audiences alike, BC/EFA Executive Director Tom Viola was preparing to meet with the Broadway company to discuss their first fundraising campaign for the upcoming spring Easter Bonnet Competition.
“There were about a dozen South African actors in that original cast,” Viola says. “I could not imagine standing in front of them and talking about AIDS as if it was only happening here. BC/EFA couldn’t ask them to help us reach out to people living with AIDS across the United States without acknowledging what was happening to their friends and families back home and sharing some of the resources they were making possible with organizations providing the most basic services for South Africans.”
In the initial meeting, Viola proposed that a considerable portion of all money raised by The Lion Kingcompany would be donated to South African AIDS service organizations which the South African actors themselves would be involved in identifying. This would ensure that there would not be a flood of requests and ultimately enable BC/EFA to respond in a meaningful way.
Viola explains, “By ensuring that the South African actors have a significant voice in the grant making process, they and the entire company have an emotional connection to the fundraising which benefits us all.”
Both American and South African actors alike embraced the idea. Suddenly what the company was doing for BC/EFA resonated more deeply because of relationships they had formed with each other in rehearsals and now in performance. Actor Ron Kunene, a native of Springs, South Africa, who has been with the Broadway company since The Lion King opened, serves as a key representative of the South African actors among the show’s companies.
“The unity this has created within the company here in New York and on the road is tremendous,” Kunene says. “BC/EFA’s willingness to share resources in this way has given us a common goal that affects people here in New York City, across the United States and thousands of miles away in cities and towns across South Africa. It is something that’s incredibly moving to me, my fellow actors and company members.”
In South Africa, the need for support of HIV/AIDS-focused organizations is staggering. The most recent United Nations estimates show almost 18 percent of 15-49 year old South Africans are living with HIV. In some regions, though, that percentage increases to almost half the adult population. In all, the U.N. estimates about 5.6 million people in South Africa are directly affected, including 300,000 children under the age of 15.
The Broadway company of The Lion King raised $68,500 in its first fundraising campaign just prior to the 12th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition in April 1998. The following June, $25,000 was awarded to four AIDS service organizations in Johannesburg: AIDSLink, Awareness South Africa, Cotlands Hospice and a fledgling congregate housing program, Nkosi’s Haven.
By the 14th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition in 2000, The Lion King raised more than $136,000 in six weeks of fundraising and the following June, $50,000 was sent to eight organizations in Johannesburg, Durban and Springs.
Over the life of the show, the Broadway production of The Lion King has worked with BC/EFA in other important ways. They hosted the Easter Bonnet Competition at the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theatre from 1998-2006 and in 2007, this most iconic of BC/EFA’s annual events moved with The Lion King to the Minskoff Theatre where the 25th annual edition will play on April 25 and 26, 2011.
As two national tours – the “Gazelle” and ”Cheetah” companies – hit the road in 2002 and 2003, fundraising totals increased as did the outreach and number of grants made across South Africa. The grants helped a variety of service providers: well-established organizations in Johannesburg and Durban; food pantries, orphanages and struggling health clinics operating out of churches and community centers in mid-sized towns like Lesotho, Mamabatho, Kwa-Thema, Greytown and Geluksdal; and community outreach efforts in the bustle of Capetown. Each group in every locale represented the home of South African members of The Lion King cast.
This February, following the fundraising campaign tied to 22nd Annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, $140,000 of the $170,000 raised by the Broadway and “Gazelle” companies of The Lion King was awarded in grants to 17 AIDS service organizations and advocacy groups across South Africa:
|Bumbanani Creche, Greytown, Kwazulu-Natal||–||$10,000|
|Darling Trust, Cape Town||–||$5,000|
|Disabled People of Kwa-Thema, Kwa-Thema||–||$10,000|
|Ethembeni Community Services, Springs||–||$5,000|
|Huis Tini Vorster, Nigel||–||$5,000|
|K-Cap Integrated Arts, Kwa Mushu||–||$10,000|
|Kwa-Thema Adventist Church, Springs||–||$10,000|
|Majeke Community Health, East Rand||–||$10,000|
|Molemong Club, Durban||–||$5,000|
|Nkosi’s Haven, Johannesburg||–||$10,000|
|St. Martin’s Project, Springs||–||$5,000|
|Theo Twala Primary School, Springs||–||$5,000|
|Thusanang Services, Brakpan||–||$10,000|
|Tlhory Foundation, Lesotho||–||$10,000|
|Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Johannesburg||–||$15,000|
Nkosi’s Haven has been a part of BC/EFA’s grant making to South Africa since that first grant round in June 1998.
“We’ve seen the Haven develop from just one small house for a dozen mums and their babies to owning four properties with over 100 residents,” explains Gail Johnson, founder of Nkosi’s Haven, which is named after her son, Nkosi, who died of complications from AIDS at age 12. “There’s no doubt that the support we’ve received from The Lion King and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has assisted unbelievably in relieving the stress levels of our mothers and children and truly helping to make all of them whole again.”
After making the appeal from the stage during fundraising periods, Thuli Dumakude, who played Rafiki on Broadway in The Lion King for more than two years, returned to South Africa to work with HIV-positive mothers and their children at Bumbanani Creche in Greytown, Kwazula-Natal. But she felt compelled to do more. Seeing the need for HIV-positive women in this rural community to be self-sustaining, Dumakude created Thembalethu, an organization committed to training and employing many South Africans to use their native craft skills to create intricately beaded ornaments, animals and other colorful items that are now sold at The Lion King and in Broadway Cares’ online store.
“The generosity of the audience touched me so much that I had visions of South Africa and the multitudes of people who were struggling to get by with little resources,” Dumakude says. “That experience taught me to look deeper and realize that there are families, particularly many HIV positive women back home in South Africa that needed both the opportunity to work and just the smallest bit of care in order to survive. With Thembalethu, all of us at The Lion King and Broadway Cares can offer them both.”
Over the last 10 years, orders of the Thembalethu beaded ornaments from Broadway Cares have helped employ dozens of local women in Greytown and assisted Thembalethu in building a community center, which offers young children a place to go to school and provides them a warm meal every day. They’ve even started a cooperative garden to grow their own fresh vegetables for their own meals and to sell.
At Thusanang Services in Brakpan outside Johannesburg, the staff works at the grassroots level with disadvantaged youth, many of whom have lost both parents to HIV/AIDS. Last year, Thusanang’s Abner Mariri wrote:
“Help is needed on so many fronts. When you see a child struggling to stay in school because both parents are too ill to work or when you go to a hospital to visit a cousin dying of AIDS and are confronted with rows of beds of your neighbors who are also dying, you ask yourself, ‘How can this be?’ Thank you Broadway Cares and The Lion King for helping us. Even the little we can do rescues someone whose future will be transformed.”
Beyond the tangible benefits of providing care and education, the grants to Thusanang Services have helped fuel a renewed sense of pride. “It is my humble belief that South Africa is destined for greatness,” Mariri continues. “This is a country full of hope and faith in the future. In our small community, friends at The Lion King have helped to lift us from despair. It is just a beginning and must happen for many more.”
But nothing captures the spirit of what everyone at The Lion King and BC/EFA hope to accomplish more than a letter that arrived in 2007 from Joshua Twala and Tshepile Ramaott at the Ethembeni Community Center in the Amangwe Village in South Africa’s northern province of Zwazulu-Natal:
Warm Greetings to our Friends at Broadway Cares and The Lion King:
Thank you for the funds that we received at the Ethembeni Community Center on the 27 February. We wish that we could thank you in a special way. These funds have played a very important role in the life of so many South African people infected and affected by AIDS. One way or another that is nearly all of us.
Your funds have helped us give food parcels to many in the community who are too sick to work, including over 2,000 children, many orphans or HIV infected from very poor families.
Please keep up the good work so as to help us produce a healthy nation.
While there have been great strides in providing much needed services across the country, South Africa continues to be faced with a harsh reality: nearly one-in-three women aged 25-29 and more than a quarter of men aged 30-34 are living with HIV.
Some may think that the $3,031,000 from BC/EFA made possible by our friends at Disney’s The Lion King barely scratches the surface of the extraordinary challenges facing millions in South Africa. And they would be right.
But perhaps in this case an old African fable bears repeating:
While walking along a beach, a man saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he came closer, he saw thousands of starfish the tide had thrown onto the beach. Unable to return to low tide, the starfish were dying. The man observed a boy picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the water.
After watching the seemingly futile effort, the observer said: “There must be thousands of starfish on the beach. It is impossible for you to help them all. You can’t possibly save enough to make a difference.”
The boy smiled as he continued to pick up another starfish and toss it back into the ocean.
“It made a difference to that one,” he replied.
And so have we.
BC/EFA salutes The Lion King family. We look forward to our ongoing collaboration and unique outreach to communities in South Africa, even as we look to the day when a vaccine for AIDS makes our concerted and committed efforts obsolete.