From tradesman's daughter to stage


Michael Knipe

Peggy Phango came to Britain from South Africa in 1961 as the female lead in the ground-breaking jazz musical King Kong.

She played a glamorous shebeen queen - a role originated by her cousin, Miriam Makeba - in an exuberant show featuring an all-black cast and the jazz-influenced rhythms and harmonies of Africa.

Emerging from the republic when apartheid was at its height, the show captured the earthy flavours of the gang-ruled shanty towns and made a considerable impact on London audiences.

When it closed, Phango, along with most of the cast, chose to stay on in Britain rather than return to racially segregated life. She built a career singing in cabaret, making records and appearing as a straight actress in many television and stage productions.

The daughter of Joseph Phango, a trader from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, she worked as a nurse after leaving school, but was lured away from hospital work by the apparent glamour of showbusiness.
She started singing in the burgeoning township jazz scene.

Her natural vocal talents were soon recognised by Albert Herbert, a promoter, who signed her up to tour with a show entitled African Jazz and Variety.

In 1957, work commenced on King Kong with Makeba as the female lead, Joyce. Two years later a touring production of King Kong was mounted with Phango playing Joyce.

When the production opened at London’s Prince’s Theatre in February 1961, it was an immediate success, but plans to extend the tour to include Israel and the United States fell through and the cast disbanded.

Phango, with characteristic determination, formed a vocal group called the Velvettes with three other previous members of the King Kong cast. Recently, a poster came to light advertising a concert at which the Velvettes topped the bill supported by The Rolling Stones.

During the same period, Alexis Korner formed his rhythm and blues band, Blues Incorporated, and the Velvettes were signed to appear with them. The band’s pianist was Johnny Parker, and it was not long before he and Phango began a relationship, setting up home in Canonbury.

The couple developed a cabaret act for Phango as a solo singer. Her repertoire included traditional Xhosa songs alongside numbers previously featured in King Kong and African Jazz and Variety.

Appearances with the bands of fellow South Africans Chris MacGregor and Louis Moholo followed. In more recent years, Phango resumed her singing career, touring with another South African, Dudu Pukwana, and the band Zila, with whom she recorded an album. She also performed, intermittently, with Makeba.

She was encouraged to develop her acting career by a neighbour, Mary Miller, an established actress. Peggy’s first acting role in England was in the comedy You Can’t Take It with You. This was followed by a part in Peter Hall’s Covent Garden production of Moses and Aaron. After touring Europe in a German production of Porgy and Bess, she appeared with Cleo Laine in Harold Fielding’s London revival of Showboat at the Adelphi on the Strand.

Phango’s other West End credits included the role of Sarah in William Dougles Home’s Betzi at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Herbert Lom in the role of Napoleon; Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor at the Victoria Palace Theatre; and Bloody Mary in the West End production of South Pacific.

Phango’s television appearances included roles in Within These Walls, EastEnders, Crown Court, The Bill, Brookside and Blue Pastures.

Victims of Apartheid and Hilda Bernstein’s Death Is Part of the Process, saw her participating in productions chronicling the history of South Africa. More recently she secured a role in Lynda la Plante’s Trial and Tribulation, and was included in the cast of Brothers and Sisters in 1996.

She was then suffering breathlessness and ill health, but her determination enabled her to complete a new episode for the forthcoming second series only last month.

Although she was not a political campaigner, she regarded her work as a contribution to the liberation struggle.

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