T&T performer roars as Nala in Lion King

New Zealander Nick Afoa as Simba and T&T's Janique Charles as Nala in Disney's The Lion King. Photo courtesy Disney Lion King Production Co

Source: Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

Published on June 10th 2017 

For T&T performer Janique Charles, playing the part of Nala in Disney's The Lion King musical on London's West End is the culmination of a lifelong dream. The 23 year old said the accomplishment was all the more poignant because she has been in love with Disney all her life.

“As a child I dreamed I would be a 'triple threat' superstar like Beyoncé, and starring in blockbuster movies alongside Denzel Washington—after I had my own Disney Channel series of course.”

Charles credits her mother with acknowledging and supporting her desire and sending her to coaches here in T&T, including noted vocal coach Glenda Collens.

She said it was hard for her to go on as she grew up.

“I didn't always like training after school. After a long day I just wanted to go home. It was hard and it made me nervous and I often got frustrated when I couldn't get the techniques right. I thank God my mother kept making me go, otherwise I wouldn't be where I am today. It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention Charlene Belfon and Stephen Howard of ASK Promotions who believed in my dreams and provided opportunities for me to sing at different events.”

Charles said her first introduction to theatre was at age 14, when she played the character of Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for an English Literature class assignment. She loved theatre but was shy about pursuing it.

“I resorted to casting myself in imaginary movies. I think my mother has walked in on me in my room quite a few times talking to myself. I was reciting my lines and going through my scenes with my imaginary co-stars.”

Charles entered Digicel Rising Stars in 2009 and 2011, and also performed in a local production of West Side Story, all while studying natural sciences at St Joseph's Convent, Port-of-Spain.

She first auditioned for The Lion King in 2010, when the associates and casting directors came to Trinidad. “My best friend told me about it so I begged my mother to take me and it was like nothing I had ever been through before. Two years later, while preparing for my Cape level 2 exams and struggling to accept that my future would not include a Disney Channel series but instead a white lab coat at the University of the West Indies, my God sent me a blessing. Mr Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, which includes The Lion King, sent me an email offering me a place in The Lion King UK touring company. Shortly after, I was on my way to London.”

In 2012 Charles became part of the company, which played all over the UK as well as in Basel, Switzerland. She became a member of the West End ensemble in 2016, where she played different roles before being awarded the role of Nala, which she took over last month.

Charles advises young performers in T&T to devote some time every day to simply dreaming, invest in your creative capital. “Nobody can do your role the way you do it and you're sitting on a gold mine; and be present and be daring,” she said. “If you need to jump-start your career in the arts, Glenda Collens, Charlene Belfon and Stephen Howard are some of the people who can point you in the right direction.”

Charles is not the first local name associated with the Disney show; T&T dancer Zara Bartels was The Lion King's dance captain for ten years. The musical has been running at the Lyceum Theatre for nearly 20 years and is still a draw, to say the least.

Charles said being chosen was a dream come true, and she cried following her first performance because it was so incredible. “I feel so blessed to be a leading lady in London's West End and in such an incredible show. That's why I thank God and play soca star The Voice's song Cheers to Life every day, because I truly do feel like a winner every time I wake up in the morning.”

She said she was proud to be part of something amazing and legendary, as The Lion King is one of the longest-running shows in the West End and has been seen by over 20 million people worldwide.

“You cannot help but want to do your best every night. Just like I cried and laughed and looked on in awe when I first saw the show, I want every audience member to hopefully feel the same from mine, and my colleagues' performances. With all the nerves set aside, I feel content that I get to do what I love every single night.”