King Kong swings back on to South African stages

The massively successful King Kong musical is back on South African stages. More than half a century ago, it helped to launch the careers of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

King Kong the musical
Combining jazz sounds from Sophiatown, a love story, a tragedy and the fall of a sporting hero, King Kong, the musical, returns to South African stages on 25 July 2017. (Image: King Kong the Musical)

Priya Pitamber

When King Kong, the musical, opened at the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1959, it broke new ground.

Firstly, it had an all-black cast with a story set in Sophiatown; secondly, it was seen by a record-breaking 200,000 people in South Africa, comprising all races. The performers received standing ovations.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the musical has made a comeback. Currently on stage in Cape Town, at The Fugard Theatre, it will move to Johannesburg in September.

“We are thrilled that this long-awaited production of this iconic and first South African musical of King Kong, is a Fugard Theatre production which [showcases] the very best of South African talent,” says Daniel Galloway the executive director of The Fugard Theatre.

“The original production united audiences of all colours, launched careers and put South African talent firmly on the international map. We are excited to be re-creating the world of the Back of the Moon shebeen with an all-South African cast and superb creative team.

“While remaining true to the original production, our Fugard Theatre King Kong will refresh the musical for the 21st century.”

The story

The musical is based on the tragic life of local heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who allegedly committed suicide in 1957. But his life was not always so difficult.

Dlamini’s formidable size and strength gave birth to the nickname, King Kong. His boxing brought him fame and fortune, but he eventually lost it all.

He went on to work as a bouncer at a club in Sophiatown, but it led him down a path paved with gangsterism, drugs and crime. He killed his girlfriend during a fight, for which he was sentenced to 12 years of hard labour. However, three months later, he drowned.

“It’s a very human story,” said Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, the music director of the modern show.

“Anyone, anywhere can relate to the story. But obviously there is this cloud of politics that hangs over it and it never gets addressed. I think it is quite genius the way it was written and how they attempted to tell the story and especially seeing it is a true story as well.”

A legend goes to stage

The original production featured music from composer and journalist Todd Matshikiza, and lyrics by Pat Williams. It launched the careers of the young Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Today, the two are international legends.

Eric Abraham, producer of the relaunched show, said the music was magical. “There is something magical about King Kong,” he told the BBC. “It happened in a moment in time when this desperate group of people, who somehow came together, and produced a show that I think probably changed a lot of peoples’ lives.”

The soundtrack, Lingenfelder said, remained fresh. “That is why this production is so exciting — because people will rediscover it now and hopefully also rediscover the original recordings and appreciate it for what it was at the time — an extraordinary achievement.”

The setting

Abigail Kubeka was Makeba’s understudy in the original play. She recalled the atmosphere in Sophiatown back then. “Sophiatown was a country in another country,” she told the BBC.

There were strict laws and a 9pm curfew in the city, and authorities watched with whom you mingled, Kubeka said.

“And then you get to Sophiatown. It’s a different world. You get all colours of people, rainbow nation and everyone is minding his or her own business, free, getting together and enjoying each other’s company.

“It was beautiful. It was life beyond apartheid. We just cut that out, you know. We just lived our lives, we became ourselves, and did what we could do, and what we wanted to do.”

Kubeka said King Kong was the first big musical to go overseas. “We performed at the Princess Theatre in London and people loved what they saw.”

The reviews

The 1959 show received rave reviews. In 1961, Time Magazine described it as a “a big event in theatrical history”.

“The audience was mixed,” noted the Central African Examiner, “and for a short time at least, the laws of apartheid were suspended with their applause.”

A reviewer for the Golden City Post wrote: “Tears of exultation as I feel that a new era in non-white entertainment has been born with the production of King Kong. I became breathless with the splendour of the production.”

Today, the praise mirrors the reviews of more than 50 years ago.

For more information, click here for the official website.

Sources: BBC, King Kong

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