.‘The Lion King’ rolls out red carpet for Marin City children

When Felecia Gaston, director of the nonprofit Performing Stars, says she wants to bring 40 low-income kids from Marin City to see a live performance of The Lion King, she makes it happen.

And when Miss Felecia, as the children call her, decides to fill the entire day with activities that even adults would envy, she dials up VIPs from her Rolodex and makes it happen. After all, she’s been at the helm of Performing Stars since founding the organization 32 years ago.

“This is just one of the many experiences I’ll expose our children to,” Miss Felecia said. “It’s especially important for low-income kids and children of color. They’re going to a live Broadway show; these children couldn’t afford to do that.”

Miss Felecia chose The Lion King for several reasons, including its relevance for Black children. The musical tells a story from South Africa, with numerous Black performers gracing the stage. Not to mention that it’s a fabulous, Tony Award-winning show.

“The show could inspire our children to be on stage,” Miss Felecia said. “We’re introducing them to professional training in the arts, and it opens their horizons. The lightbulb could go off, and they realize, ‘I could be an actor in The Lion King or perform with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.’”

On Dec. 16, the magical day arrived. At 9am, parents delivered their children, ages 8 to 10, into the capable hands of the Performing Stars’ staff and volunteer chaperones, who were waiting in a Marin City church parking lot.

The little girls looked beautiful, decked out in fancy dresses and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes. The handsome young boys donned their Sunday best.

The first surprise waiting for the children involved eight officers from the California Highway Patrol and Marin County Sheriff’s Office, whom Miss Felecia invited to do some community building with the kids before the bus departed for the theater. The girls and boys readily hopped onto CHP Officer Andrew Ashley’s motorcycle, gleefully—and loudly—revving the engine to their heart’s content.

VROOM VROOM CHP Officer Andrew Ashley watches over Isha Kambi revving his motorcycle. Marin City, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Nikki Silverstein.

About an hour later, 40 excited children and 15 adult chaperones boarded a Marin Airporter bus for the trip to the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Miss Felecia provided etiquette tips and announced the most important aspect of the day—having fun.

The merriment began in earnest when the kids received special treatment typically reserved for visiting dignitaries. As the bus pulled out of the lot, several law enforcement vehicles surrounded it. The officers turned on their flashing lights and escorted the bus from Marin City to the Golden Gate Bridge. Every child gazed out the windows, mesmerized by the blinking blue lights atop the officers’ vehicles. The youth understood the convoy meant they were important. 

The rest of the drive to the theater was uneventful, although some of the kids were awestruck by the large buildings in San Francisco. Once the bus arrived at its destination, everyone disembarked and entered the theater—for most it would be their first time at a professional live performance. Cheerful children’s voices rang out as the group moved toward the theater’s dining room, reserved just for them.

A catered buffet offered a delicious array of healthy food and cookies for dessert. The youth ate lunch, quietly conversed and colored lion cub and lion king masks. But they became lively when they learned a true VIP was in their midst, Yvonne Cagle, M.D., one of the few Black women astronauts.

Cagle, a chaperone, came dressed in a flight jumpsuit and had a comfortable style with the kids. It wasn’t just her NASA astronaut claim to fame—Cagle spent time with each child in the dining room, asking and answering numerous questions on a variety of topics.

STAR-STUDDED DAY Marley Miller (l) feels like she’s on top of the world with NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle (c) and chaperone Meloni Gail Page (r), who is also Miller’s grandmother. Orpheum Theatre, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Vicky Tierney.

Finally, the group moved into the theater. The next surprise became apparent when the theater attendants showed the kids to their orchestra seats. As anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing The Lion King knows, actors dressed in animal costumes dance down the aisles of the orchestra section on their way to the stage. The children could practically reach out and touch the performers, letting out oohs and aahs every time the animals passed by.

The kids remained engaged throughout the show. Malakai Wayne, a nine-year-old boy from Marin City, was enamored with Simba and waved to the young lion prince when he entered the stage. Many of the kids knew The Lion King songs, belting out “He Lives in You” and “Hakuna Matata” when the actors sang those tunes.

During intermission, Wayne eagerly expressed his opinion of the show. Although he had never before attended a live theater performance, Wayne certainly knows what tickles his fancy.

“I like it 1,000%,” Wayne said. “I like Simba the best. This show is better than the movie because of the costumes and the music. They put their sweat and tears into it.”

It seemed that every child had their own unique take on the show, all of it positive and upbeat. Ta’Nyla Wilson, a 10-year-old girl from Marin City, noted details about the set and one particular costume.

“I really liked how the colors kept changing in the background,” Wilson said. “The green grass was nice. And I liked the giraffes, how they have big, tall necks and little arms.”

After the show, the children enjoyed their biggest surprise of the day. They met a few of the show’s actors and heard inspiring stories about their start in theater and the hard work that goes into learning the Lion King roles. The grand finale included the stars answering the kids’ questions.

Actor Khalifa White plays the part of Nala, a lioness who eventually marries Simba, the lion prince. White has a strong, clear voice and sings like a nightingale. Still, she auditioned four to five times before she got the Nala role.

Gerald Ramsey stars as Mufasa, the benevolent lion king. Growing up, Ramsey said he was a shy person, often stuttering. He credits acting for helping him overcome those challenges.

Pumbaa, played by John E. Brady, explained that it takes 18 18-wheeler trucks to transport the sets and costumes to the different cities where they perform The Lion King. Brady said that most cast members play several roles and wear 9 to 12 costumes each show. It takes four weeks of constant rehearsing for each person to learn their parts.

The children had plenty more questions, but the actors had to eat dinner and rest before their evening performance. Reluctantly, the kids filed out of the theater and back to the bus. They clearly didn’t want the day to end.

Miss Felecia has been receiving letters from the children that express their gratitude to the donors, including saxophonist Dave Koz, who paid for half of the children to attend the performance. 

Thanks to Miss Felecia’s ideas and the generosity of donors, 40 kids had an experience they’ll remember for years to come.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

3 COMMENTS

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. We are so blessed to have Miss Felicia in our county. Thank you for this.

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  2. Nikki: Whether writing of rogue police officers assaulting a gardener drinking beer in a parking lot OR capturing the essence of Marin City children being “bussed” to The Lion King, you enlighten your readers with a style that compels us to take a breath and read everything under your by-line. Thanks for being our local journalist. Laurel and Jerry

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  3. Nikki! What great detail you consistently provide us. This time on the incredible organizing skill of Ms Felicia, along with her love for children. She exposes our precious ones to many facets of the ARTs (substantially MIA in our school district) & SCIENCEs. Thank you for providing the reader with a picture of our Ms Felicia, and through her work, our children, and the incredible Community of Marin City.

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