Chantel Riley is a woman fully aware of her feminine sovereignty both on and off the stage. The Lion King may be Chantel Riley’s Broadway debut, but the character Nala, whom Riley portrays, is perfectly aligned with principles shared by Riley’s family, “My family has always been so sure to let us know who we are as individuals, that we are powerful people, that we are to be confident in what we do and to not take no for an answer,” recounts Riley.
Riley is enjoying her tenure on both Broadway and in film, for her role as Quincella Nickerson in the Jesse Owens biopic Race. Riley was cast as Nala in Disney’s The Lion King in 2012, and is appreciating each moment from the life lessons in the play to seeing her face on the show’s marquis, “Sometimes, I find myself having out of body experiences, like ‘hello, I’m on Broadway, I’m in the Lion King!’ ” she laughs.
A deuteragonist, Nala has left a lifelong impression by empowering her, “It’s always so great to have that character Nala, to learn from her, to be reminded, you are strong, you are beautiful, especially as a Black woman in this industry, it’s something that we need to hear more often.”
The Canadian-born actor delights in the role and has a particular kinship with the lioness’ chant, “It embodies girl power, and as we know, in the savanna, the lionesses are the ones that do all of the hard work, we hunt, we kill, we are the ones that have to bring food to the table,” she says.
Riley stars opposite Jelani Remy who plays Simba in the production. Remy has been a part of the Disney Theatrical Group since 2007 with past shows including High School Musical and High School Musical 2. The show’s classic opening number, “Circle of Life” is Remy’s favorite moment in The Lion King, “I think it’s one of the greatest theatrical extravaganzas that’s ever been,” says Remy, “it’s an amazing shock to all your senses!”
Remy reveres Ben Vereen, Michael Jackson, Brian McKnight and Prince as a few of his greatest influences. He learned of Prince’s death hours before a performance and Remy shared with this writer that Prince was the inspiration when he sang the song “Endless Night,” “It was such a surreal experience to be singing, ‘Endless Night’ about the loss of my father but really singing about Prince, and I hope that he enjoyed that, because that was for him.”
A Cedar Grove, New Jersey, native, Remy recently spent time with a group of middle school students in West Orange, New Jersey, who are prepping for their production of Lion King 2. “It’s so important to meet the kids, you’re like a superstar to them, but really, I see myself, I was them. In couple of years time they’ll be taking their kids to the show, so it’s so nice to meet the future.”
–angela d. mack (Twitter: @AngelaDMack)