King Kong: a remarkable history of SA’s most famous stage play

20 Jul 2017 King Kong: a remarkable history of SA’s most famous stage play

Published in Financial Mail 20 July 2017

My father was still a bachelor and one of an estimated 120,000 South Africans who saw the production of King Kong that opened at Wits University’s Great Hall in Johannesburg in 1959, then toured to Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth for a total of eight months. It moved to London’s West End in 1961 for 200 performances.

(Original Caption) Scene from King Kong. Johannesburg: American and British theater goers are likely to be seeing in the next season or so an all-African jazz opera that is a smash hit in South Africa and could become one in New York and London. The show, called King Kong is based on the real life story of zulu heavyweight champion Ezekiel Dhlamini who, after being knocked out by a mere middleweight lost his popularity, became a vicious bully, and ended up a murderer. In this scene from the show, African actor-singer Nathan Mdledle (center), as "King Kong," dances with his gangster-moll girl friend-played by Miriam Makeba, at an illicit liquor den.
(Original Caption) Scene from King Kong. Johannesburg: American and British theater goers are likely to be seeing in the next season or so an all-African jazz opera that is a smash hit in South Africa and could become one in New York and London. The show, called King Kong is based on the real life story of zulu heavyweight champion Ezekiel Dhlamini who, after being knocked out by a mere middleweight lost his popularity, became a vicious bully, and ended up a murderer. In this scene from the show, African actor-singer Nathan Mdledle (center), as “King Kong,” dances with his gangster-moll girl friend-played by Miriam Makeba, at an illicit liquor den.

He saw Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, among others, launched into international stardom as the 70-strong cast performed the story of the rise and fall of heavyweight boxing champion Ezekiel Dlamini, known as King Kong in the ring.

In her book King Kong – A Venture in the Theatre (Norman Howell, Cape Town, 1960), Mona Glasser — later De Beer— quotes Margot Bryant, the publicity agent for the first all-black SA musical, who wrote: “He was a bully and a braggart, and was recognised as such in the townships. Yet they cheered him. He brought colour, vitality and excitement to their lives.”

He had left his home town of Vryheid at the age of 14, eventually ending up in the City of Gold where he relied on “gambling with cards and dice to live… until he found himself in the sparring rooms of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre,” writes De Beer. “He wasn’t the kind of boxer who had polish,” one of his fans recalled, “but his wild jabbing, his strength, speed and stamina soon brought him to the top.”

Dlamini’s career began to fade after he was badly beaten by Simon “Greb” Mthimkulu. In 1957 he was jailed for murdering his girlfriend, who he suspected of betraying him. Dlamini’s 12-year hard-labour sentence on Leeukop prison farm near Johannesburg lasted less than two weeks before he was found drowned in a dam on the property.

In August this year, about 58 years later, my father will be in the audience again for the long-awaited Fugard Theatre production of King Kong. Todd Matshikiza’s uplifting score and Pat Williams’ original book and lyrics provide the foundation for this restaging, with internationally acclaimed dancer, director and choreographer Gregory Maqoma creating the movement.

Gregory Maqoma
Gregory Maqoma. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

Maqoma, a recent recipient of the French Légion D’Honneur, is excited to be part of this production. He says King Kong has been following him, in a sense, as he had begun workshopping the music at the request of the late Todd Matshikiza’s son, John, around 2005/2006. When John passed away in 2008, the project “just drifted away” — until Maqoma received that call from the Fugard.

“I’ve always been interested in King Kong, not just as the first SA musical, but also because it’s so rich in SA jazz. What also interested me was that there was no set choreography for me to reference,” he says. “I had to start from scratch, taking inspiration from the score and the text, and imagining how I could bring in the physicality to the production.”

 

 

Every moment is important — where the actors walk, how they sit, where they’re standing, how props shift in the space
Gregory Maqoma

It’s been a two-year process for the creative team, and Maqoma’s been involved from the casting of the first actor. He says it was daunting to walk into a musical that has so much history.

“It’s important for me to understand all angles of the production; it has to live inside me. It’s fulfilling to work with people who are open to my sometimes crazy suggestions, but I think that’s what makes great theatre — for us to be crazy in a space and to imagine something that we can present with so much pride.”

 Rehearsal time: The cast of King Kong — The Musical. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS
Rehearsal time: The cast of King Kong — The Musical. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

Maqoma admits that his biggest worry was finding 22 artists who can sing, act and dance — the ideal group of triple threats — but he says his theatrical work with artistic director James Ngcobo has taught him how to work with the actors’ bodies and make them look good.

“We needed to respect the music (it’s so well-orchestrated you can’t mess with it) and we needed to respect the story, which needs to be delivered with so much clarity and detail. The choreography or movement can’t be separated from that so I’ve had to be a step ahead of everybody else. When the director’s directing, I’m already imagining the movement and how it will sit with the actors.”

Maqoma grew up with jazz. His father was a lover of SA jazz in particular. “That’s how I got to know Abdullah Ibrahim, the Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba … For me, music and dance have never been separate entities. There’s always music that accompanies the dance or dance that accompanies the music. It has become my aesthetic. It’s a marriage.”

For Gregory Maqoma, whose performance aesthetic is a marriage of music and dance, choreographing the Fugard Theatre’s King Kong is a dream assignment

Audiences who know Maqoma’s work will vouch that it’s very happy. As much as King Kong is a musical, Maqoma has treated it almost as physical theatre.

“Every moment is important — where the actors walk, how they sit, where they’re standing, how props shift in the space. Apart from the moments when we’re bursting with energy, there are those very strong visual moments that are choreographed.”

Conscious of keeping the dance in the kwela era, within the context of Sophiatown and the 1950s and 1960s dance forms, Maqoma is also finding a new rhythm.

“I’ve been able to create counter rhythms within the choreography. The music allows you to play with it in that way.”

Look out for the section where he’s incorporated Zulu indlamu (traditional movement) into the dance, highlighting the cultural hybrid that was Sophiatown.

Andile Gumbi. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS
Andile Gumbi. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

Andile Gumbi is cast as Ezekiel Dlamini. Gumbi made his Broadway debut as Simba in Disney’s The Lion King and has starred in this musical in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai and SA. Nondumiso Tembe will recreate the role of Joyce, previously played by Makeba. Tembe’s credits include HBO’s Golden Globe and Emmy-award winning True Blood, SABC’s Generations, the military drama SIX on the History Channel and Zulu Wedding with Darrin Dewitt Henson.

The musical is produced and presented by Eric Abraham and directed by Jonathan Munby. The revised book (with additional lyrics) is by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and playwright William Nicholson. Musical direction is by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (following the legacy of the original musical director Stanley Glasser) and Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba, with arrangements and additional music by Lingenfelder.

Glasser (now 91 years of age) was completing his final year at Cambridge when he was proposed for the project by then producer Leon Gluckman, who had worked with him before. De Beer says he was excited about the prospect and impressed by Matshikiza’s music, which showed a “wide range of musical emotion and imagination. There was a variety of idioms, all of them, however, natural to the SA scene.”

De Beer notes Glasser’s description of the title song, “King Kong”, as an “excellent mutation of the African idiom and the American musical song. Very often, as in ‘The Earth Turns Over’, there is a natural and original construction of form. ‘The Death Song’ has proportions of magic opera greatness while ‘Back o’ the Moon’ has undertones of a leading SA urban dance rhythm. ‘Sad Times, Bad Times ’ is an instrumental piece of the most sad and serious nature, and could have been written nowhere but in SA.”

A newly published version of Pat Williams’ personal memoir, Our Knot of Time and Music (UK’s Portobello Books) will be available at the Fugard during the run of the show. Athol Fugard describes it as “an extraordinary memoir of the first-ever SA musical, which has since acquired mythical proportions. Essential reading for anyone who loves our country — and, of course, its music”.

What happened to King Kong was something none of us anticipated,” said Gluckman. “The play was a staggering success … Africans were presented as human beings with a capacity for giving pleasure. The theatre, with its universal values, is a good way of showing the truth. The truth in King Kong is a basic humanity.”

King Kong

At Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre from July 25 to September 2.
At Johannesburg’s Mandela Theatre from September 12 to October 8.
Bookings for Cape Town can be made at Computicket or the theatre. Bookings for Johannesburg are via Webtickets.