by Michael Bowen & r & You shake hands and you know: It's obvious why Rufus Bonds Jr. was cast as the King of the Lions. Gentle, regal, compassionate, he's also slightly remote, as if he knows that he may have to be stern with you, knows that he may need to leave you soon. All of that registers, and then it clicks: This man is playing the role because he's living it.

Of course he's a father. Of course he has had to teach his son, get him to understand about consequences, in just the way that Mufasa does with Simba.

Bonds has headlined The Lion King for nearly four years. When dealing with all the children who have played Young Nala and Young Simba in that time, he says, "it's important that they know who they are, that they are the most important persons to me onstage. It's my responsibility to have them understand what all fathers understand, because we yearn for them so much."

The impact of how spiritual a show The Lion King is comes across in performance. Simba must fulfill his responsibilities -- despite the obstacles, despite knowing that among the benevolent spirits who are watching over him is the spirit of his much-loved, much-missed father.

Night, and the spirit of life calling & r & And a voice, just the fear of a child answers & r & Wait, there's no mountain too great & r & Hear these words and have faith & r & They live in you, they live in me

"I believe in God," Bonds says. "I am a Christian. I believe we are all spirits: We are who we are behind our eyes. I believe love is the greatest power in the universe -- and when you reach out and touch someone in that way, people embrace that. God is in everything -- God is part of us. And when you have that foundation, your children will know that you will always protect them."

In addition to its puppets and costumes and dance -- all the glitz and glitter -- the theatrical Lion King appeals to a mass audience because it can evoke a wide variety of spiritual responses. It's not a sectarian show, but one that can be assimilated to a wide variety of religious beliefs.

Mufasa's symbolic outreach to people of all faiths finds an echo in how Bonds himself has demonstrated empathy for the varied cast members who have circulated through the Cheetah Company over the years.

"During their first year, I tell people in the company that it'll take a year for them to get to know what they're trying to find," Bonds says.

"In my second year, I discovered it. In my third year, I was taking on the responsibility of mentoring everybody."

And in the fourth year? Bonds draws a breath. "I created a ceremony--for the whole company. I just started it this year. We were in Tempe, Arizona, and we were losing a cast member -- someone with a vibrant personality -- and the new cast member was very young and, I could see, intimidated. So I asked myself, 'How can we make him not feel this way? How can we make him feel better?'

"So I created a song. In South African, we sing, 'We welcome you,' and we guide them down the hall -- they have their eyes closed -- and we stand at the doors of the dressing rooms. And one person says, 'Be blessed.' And another says, 'Thank you for the gift you have given us.' 'You will have all you need.' 'Always live with dignity and honor.'"

The role has blended into the man: Rufus Bonds Jr. is watching over every one of his fellow cast members -- and in performance, as Mufasa, he's watching us too.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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