NEW YORK (AP/WCBS 880/CBS2) — The Broadway theater where “The Lion King” is playing dimmed its lights Tuesday night in honor of a fallen lion cub: An 11-year-old actress from the show who lost her battle with leukemia.
Shannon Tavarez died Monday afternoon at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, on Long Island, of acute myelogenous leukemia, a common type of leukemia among adults but rare among children.
“Shannon’s strength and her happy, positive spirit will live on in our hearts and minds each day,” her mother, Odiney Brown, said in a statement. “Shannon’s dream was to perform on stage, and that she did.”
The sixth-grader’s battle with cancer won the hearts of many, including Alicia Keys, Rihanna and 50 Cent. The Minskoff Theatre, home of the “The Lion King,” paid tribute to the actress by dimming its marquee lights.
WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reports on the Lion King star
“It is our hope that Shannon’s legacy will continue to inspire other brave children battling leukemia. We are grateful for the outpouring of love and prayers,” her family said in the statement.
Shannon was forced to quit the show in April. She beat out hundreds of other hopefuls last year to earn her spot playing the lion Nala, the childhood pal of Simba, hero of “The Lion King.” She split the role with another girl, performing four shows a week for six months.
Shannon had received an umbilical-cord blood transplant in August. The procedure was performed as an alternative to a bone marrow transplant. Her doctor, Dr. Larry Wolfe, said that a perfect bone marrow match for Shannon could not be found.
The search for a match was especially daunting because Shannon’s mother is African-American and her father is Hispanic, from the Dominican Republic. For bone marrow transplants, minorities and those of mixed ancestry have a more difficult time finding good matches because there aren’t as many people from those groups signed up as potential donors.
Right now, 83 percent of African-American patients who need marrow transplants don’t find matches after six months of searching, according to the National Marrow Donor Program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping patients receive transplants.
On her website, which includes a photo of herself as Nala and a video of her singing “The Circle of Life,” the 78-pound actress said, “Some people think that the test for compatibility is scary! … All it really takes to get started is a cotton swab of the inside of your cheek.
“So please get tested today. Who knows? You might be my match. Or, you may be able to help other young people with similar illnesses. And remember… ‘One swab will do the job.”‘
In a hospital interview with The Associated Press after being diagnosed, the young actress talked about her love for the theater.
“It’s an indescribable feeling, being on stage,” she said. “I portray this character with fears, but who is so tough. I feel like that’s who I am.”
Her long, curly brown hair was gone because of chemotherapy, but the sixth-grader said the most difficult part was being away from acting and her friends.
Keys, Rihanna and 50 Cent campaigned to help Tavarez find a bone marrow donor, and cast members held bone marrow donor registration drives outside the play’s Minskoff Theater. Katharina Harf, co-founder of the bone marrow donor center DKMS, said the donor center registered 10,000 people as potential donors. Keys skyped with Tavarez while she was at the hospital, Harf said, and the singer, Rhihanna and 50 Cent urged their fans to sign up as potential donors.
Child performers from “The Lion King” and other shows also sold bracelets and key chains that read, “Shine for Shannon,” to raise money to help pay for her medical bills.
“It’s rare that you meet such a spirited girl at such a young age,” Harf said. “She touched so many people to register. She was really, really a special girl.”
“Shannon’s bright smile, amazing talent, and courage will continue to inspire us in our efforts,” the New York Blood Center said in a statement.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)