“Is Mufasa Really Dead?”, And Other Important Questions Only Plays Can Answer

Jill Summerville

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist 

Recently, my best friend, Chris Schultz, lived up to his designation by giving me three free tickets for excellent seats to The Lion King at The Schuster Center! While I was wondering how I could use the cast's example of performing complex choreography in limited space while dancing in my manual wheelchair, my five-year-old nephew, Colby, had a far more elemental question: “Is Musafa really dead?”

Colby's question---or rather, the fact he had an opportunity to ask it---shows what the fiercest guardians of the theatre always claim makes defending an arts education so important. The broad argument runs thusly: Watching an actor perform someone else's story enriches an audience member's imagination and helps her find ways to be more fully physically and emotionally present in her own life  (“The Effects of Theatre Education”). The difficulty, of course, is that these unarguably useful skills arevery difficult to measure, as evidenced by the fact that Osirus Educational's website, “How To Measure Character” contains not one concrete activity or numerical value (Osirus Educational). How am I to tell, for example, that you now have the emotional maturity to handle your most recent breakup more compassionately than you did the previous ones? Because they're so difficult to quantify, the skills an exposure to the arts can build are sometimes called “soft skills,” in contrast to the concrete ones needed to learn math and science, on which the federal government spends roughly three billion dollars annually (“No Time To Waste On Making STEM Education Work”).

If I address Colby's question using only concrete evidence, the answer is a simple one: Mufasa isn't really dead, because he's played by an actor who is very much alive. If we need evidence of that, we can watch the actor get up for curtain call, or verify that he reports for work tomorrow. I will address Colby's question that way, after the show. When Mufasa dies, though, I'm crying too loudly to speak clearly. Watching the lion cub, Simba, lose his father, Mufasa, I once again lose my Grampy, who died of lung cancer twelve years ago. Like Simba, I temporarily lost sight of what it meant to be my most authentic self (although I did it amelodically). Unlike Simba, who joyfully returns to his throne, I briefly considered taking depression medication, until I realized it might interfere with the level of energy I brought to my acting.

The brutal truth is that the “soft skills” aren't soft at all. These lessons are as hard as sedimentary rock, and they also often take many years to form. There is no equation that can reveal the worth of falling deeply in love, for example, and there is no promise that a romantic miscalculation can be reconfigured. A play lets an audience member practice moving through the world; it doesn't tell her what to do in it. For that, she has to rely on her own self-knowledge and her capacity for empathy.

Later, I'll wonder whether I've done Colby a disservice by reducing Mufasa's death to effects he can measure. Then I'll wonder whether there are age appropriate ways to address grief, loss, and depression. Finally, I'll decide there is no appropriate age for learning about any of those things, and he'll do it soon enough nonetheless. Worse yet, I will have no answers for how to handle those emotions when he does feel them. Luckily, I'll know just which plays we should watch.

Photo: Shaun Escoffery stars as Mufasa in The Lion King