Interviews

Meet Martina Sykes | Lion King Cast Member

Playhouse Square welcomes back major Broadway productions beginning October 1 with Disney’s The Lion King! (The timeless show will be in town for a limited, two week run, ending on October 15.)

CleveRock spoke with cast member Martina Sykes, who plays Shenzi, a hyena in the touring production.

A native of St. Petersburg, Florida, Martina has been in rehearsals for the restart of The Lion King in the less-hot Cleveland since September 7. Her time in Cleveland is primarily work, but she does enjoy spending time at The Nine and has had an opportunity to visit Cleveland’s staple attraction, The Rock and Hall of Fame.

“I’ve been to Cleveland before. The Lion King was here around this time two years ago in 2019. I got to do a lot of my exploring then. I was here with another show my first time in Cleveland, and I did a lot of exploring. Now, I’m just revisiting the places that I like,” she said.

Martina attended schools that focused on the arts from elementary grades through high school. The daughter of a pastor, she grew up singing and performing in plays in her church.

As for her first exposure to theater?

“My parents took me to my first Broadway show when I was four-years-old. We saw Sarafina! And, fun fact, some of the cast members from Sarafina! are also in Lion King now and I get to work with them. It came full circle,” Sykes said.

How cool is that!

Unlike many (most?) Broadway performers, Sykes, who definitely wanted to pursue the arts, did not have her eyes set on touring productions or even starring on Broadway upon her graduation from University of Florida. It was some good old family encouragement that took her down that path.

My brother, who is a a Broadway performer, asked me to move to New York and try out for Broadway. And, I was like, ‘Absolutely not!’ That’s not what I went to college for. After a month of him asking me, I moved to New York and started auditioning for Broadway in 2014,” she said. “I was in Motown the Musical, the national tour, I had done regional tours and Cruise Ships prior to that. In 2016, I made my Broadway debut with Motown the Musical, then I joined The Lion King, in the role of Shenzi in September 2017.”

The COVID pandemic hit the entertainment industry the hardest of all. First to close; last to re-open. Sykes, like most performers and crew, were somewhat blindsided by the shut down.

“I think it was a little surreal. I don’t think we actually knew the weight of it. When we were first told that, ‘Hey, we’re going to shut down, but only for two weeks.’ We would have never imagined that it wouldn’t be until 18 months later we’d be back. We thought we were coming back on March 29. We would spend two weeks with our family, get some rest, and then we’d be back,” she felt at the time. “We didn’t learn the exact date until, I want to say, eight or nine months into it. Every month or every two months they were like, ‘Ok, we’re going to set this time for June, we’re going to set this time for July, we’re going to set this time for August. We’ll be back in October. No, we’ll be back in December. With each pushback it was like ‘Wow!’ This is something that we never imagined happening. But we still had hope because it was just pushing it back a little bit.

“I think the more we kept pushing back, it did hurt, but I don’t think it would have hurt as much as it could have if we would have known up front,” she continued. “I think the very last time, they were like ‘We’re going to aim for Summer 2021, but we’re still not sure.’ That was around January of 2021, that’s when it kind of set in like, ‘Wow, this is next level. We’re really not going back to work. What am I going to do?’ We stopped getting paid back in April, so it’s like, OK. Healthcare? Employment? Granted, unemployment was great, but you’re still sitting on your hands. It’s like,’ What else can I do in terms of work.’ Just to be able to get out and do something. That’s when everything set in. It was a long time coming to that realization.

Like everyone in the theater business, Martina, for one, can’t wait to be back doing what she loves!

“It’s really exciting because I can speak for myself, that I have not been onstage in a theater since March 12, 2020. To be back 18 months later, and to be with my cast is amazing. That’s one of the most important and amazing things is that I get to be back onstage with my cast, because that means that all of us made it. I’m sure we have known people who have lost someone to COVID, or have personally lost someone to COVID, but the fact that we can all come back together is a blessing within itself,” Martina reflects. “And, just to come back with a new outlook, all of us have learned so much during this time of COVID, coming back with a new outlook and perspective on what it is we do; how important our industry is to lifting the spirits of audience members. And, how important the story of the Lion King is, too. We are returning to the Pride Land, literally.!”

As for why Sykes says you should see her and the rest of the cast perform in Cleveland?

“If you like theater, you’ll love The Lion King. If you don’t like theater, you’ll love The Lion King.”

Outside of the theater, Martina operates a non-profit that brings light and hope to her native St. Petersburg, Florida. Appropriately named The HeART Mission, Sykes uses her artistic abilities to help the underserved.

“I host events to be able to help veterans, homeless, domestic abuse victims, foster children, sex-trafficking victims; pretty much anybody that’s in need. I go to different shelters and ask, ‘What is that you need? Do you need toiletries? Clothing? Food?’ Then we create a big day of community service. I still incorporate my art, so I’ll sing, or people from the shelter, they’ll get up and sing and we’ll have food catered to them,” Sykes explained. “I’ll set up gift bags or clothing based on size and colors. I host events two times per year. I’m just trying to do it on a bigger and better scale each and every year. My main goal is to be able to help people in crisis, whether they are a veteran or domestic abuse victim, or homeless, or Foster Children, people in crisis, for the rest of my life.”


The Lion King will have performances at Playhouse Square’s Keybank State Theatre from October 1 – October 15. Complete show information and a ticket purchase link can be found on our events calendar: RIGHT HERE!

VACCINATION REQUIRED!!!

Per Playhouse Square’s official site:

All audience members must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

  • “Fully vaccinated” means that 14 days have passed since either the second shot of a CDC or WHO-approved two-shot vaccine or since the administration of a CDC or WHO-approved one-shot vaccine. 
  • Those audience members who cannot be vaccinated will be required to provide proof of a negative test result received from a completed lab-certified antigen COVID-19 test within 24 hours prior to entering the theater or a negative test result received from a completed PCR COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the theater. The BinaxNOW COVID-19 Home Test (the version requiring a virtual appointment) is an acceptable option. More information about COVID-19 testing is available on local or state Department of Health websites.
  • Ticket holders must show proof of vaccination or negative test at their time of entry into the theater with a valid ticket.
  • Ticket holders may present proof of vaccination or negative on paper or a smartphone.
  • In addition to proof of vaccination or negative test result, all guests 18 years or older must also present ID, such as a driver’s license or passport. Guests under 18 may also use a school photo ID. Guests ages 3-11 do not need ID, but must be accompanied by an adult who meets all of the above requirements.
  • Children age two and under are not permitted in Playhouse Square venues at any time.

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