Cape Town in the dismal apartheid Fifties was even whiter than it is now. And not very cool. Which is why King Kong — the tragic tale of the boxer, not the gorilla — dropped into my youthful life like a revelation. Certainly, I had never come across many people like these self-assured, sassy, streetwise Jo’burg dudes who suddenly confronted us Capetonians on the stage, jiving their hearts out.
In 1959 we still lived in the Union of South Africa. Four colonies. (Two years later, we became a republic.) To our colonial ears, this music was dazzling: a new kind of Afro-jazz. The inspired wail of the sax mingled with the sharp, twiddly sounds of an instrument that was to become a heart-lifting emblem of South Africa’s grass-roots musical talent: the pennywhistle. We were rocked by it all.
Apart from the likes of Elvis and one or two other great balls of fire, the music we’d grown up with tended to be either cloyingly soppy or unashamedly banal. Pickin’ a Chicken. Come on-a My House. Doris Day. Pat Boone. King Kong was on a far more hip and meaningfully African stretch of musical turf.
This was thanks not only to Todd Matshikiza’s zingy tunes played by musos who were to become legends, like saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi and trumpet player Hugh Masekela, but the lyrics that went with them. Lyrics that were often poetry.
Like the opening bars of the song Back of the Moon, the name of the Sophiatown shebeen where most of the musical’s action took place. Delivered in the sensuous yet crystal-clear voice of the then 27-year-old Miriam Makeba — who would flee with the show into exile and become an international star — it was a song that would attain iconic status in its homeland:
Like a ping pong ball down a
Like paper riding in the breeze
Like strolling in the dark through streets you know
People can feel free at ease
People being what they please
People being easy, letting go, letting go, letting go …
In a country where the majority of the population was being kept down and restricted by draconian laws, King Kong’s effervescent celebration of life, love and muscle was like nothing we’d seen before. It was a gritty musical depiction of a place and era whose annihilation by the apartheid government four years previously would remain a haunting element of our troubled history.
Sophiatown, in what was then the Transvaal, was one of the few places where black people were permitted to own property. A lively hub of culture for talented musicians and writers, it was also home to gangs of sharp dressers whose main aim was to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. It was unique. By the late Fifties, it was gone.
With the pass laws still in full force, King Kong was not a trouble-free production for either the actors or the musicians involved. But the music triumphed.
When King Kong toured from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and Durban with its cast of 70, it played to 200 000 enraptured South Africans of all races, roped off from each other in demarcated areas.
For probably most of them, it was the first time their colonial eyes were opened to the vibrant reality of what had once been Sophiatown.
A year after King Kong’s opening night in the Wits Great Hall, another opening-night audience in London cheered it through 15 curtain calls.
King Kong told, through music, the real-life story of champion boxer Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini, a hero with a tragic flaw.
Born into poverty and nicknamed King Kong because of his size and strength, he was generally known as a strange and proud man — and a boxer who almost never lost a fight. His tragedy was that he was unable to accept defeat with grace.
It was a failing that led him down the path to violence and a death as heartbreaking as his career had been dramatic.
Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce, King Kong’s girlfriend and owner of the Back of the Moon shebeen. (Daniel Rutland Manners)
Over the years, those South Africans who had fallen in love with King Kong in their youth despaired as the show’s numerous stakeholders refused to release the rights to restage it locally.
Finally, after a 20-year battle, Eric Abraham, the founding producer and owner of the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town’s District Six, achieved the impossible. He puts it down to “a large measure of patience and tenacity, a track record in film and theatre, a dash of struggle experience and a very large helping of luck”.
The British director he brought in to direct King Kong, Jonathan Munby, who has a long association with the Fugard, says he understands the reluctance of the original stakeholders to let this much-loved musical go. “However, I don’t think they had the creative team or cast that could do justice to the material,” he says.
Sourcing brilliant singers with compelling personalities for the two leads was the tricky bit. For the role of Dlamini they finally settled on muscular Lion King hunk Andile Gumbi, who has played Simba on stages all over the world and is a local TV soap star.
“We needed a performer who was a great actor, who could sing jazz, dance and be a credible boxer,” says Munby. “They don’t grow on trees! When Andile walked into the room, however, we knew we had found what we were looking for. He is everything this role needs to be. He’s also hugely charismatic and good-looking. His audition blew me away.”
King Kong’s girlfriend, Joyce, the owner of the Back of the Moon shebeen in the musical, was an even harder role to cast. Miriam Makeba’s were large shoes to fill.
It took two years of searching to find Nondumiso Tembe. Also known to viewers of Generations, she’s an almond-eyed dazzler with a string of United States qualifications in singing, acting and dancing. She grew up in New York, where her South African parents were studying opera at the Juilliard, and was six years old when she began performing in opera and theatre.
“After seeing footage of Nondumiso and meeting her in person, I knew we had found the Joyce of our dreams,” says Munby. “Nondu is a star and we are very lucky to have her.”
The niggling question, of course, is: How close is this new production to the original? Will we be faced with a King Kong that has been revamped into something it wasn’t before?
“No one who knows the original will be disappointed,” says Munby. “The famous songs and characters, loved by so many, are all still there.”
But this production is what he calls “an evolution of the original piece”. Almost all of the original score has been kept, with some extra moments added from the book written by activist author Harry Bloom.
“A contemporary audience requires so much more these days in terms of psychological detail, stage action and fully rounded characters,” says Munby. “So, while we wanted to be respectful of the original show and not lose the essence of the writing, we wanted to make sure it held up to 21st-century scrutiny as a piece of world-class musical theatre.”
Meanwhile, Abraham believes South Africa’s first black musical will bewitch audiences both here and abroad, showcasing the extraordinary talent of this country and remembering and affirming those who gave birth to it.
“From the first moment I heard Todd Matshikiza’s music and Pat Williams’s lyrics bursting with life — probably some 25 to 30 years ago — I fell in love with King Kong,” he says.
“It not only entertained but also gently reflected the tragedy and waste of apartheid. I have a real admiration and affection for Esme Matshikiza [Todd’s widow] and Pat Williams, and I wanted them to see it again but this time in a free South Africa. What that extraordinary small group of black and white South Africans were able to create some 11 years into apartheid was nothing short of a miracle.”
King Kong is on at the Fugard until September 2 before it transfers to the Mandela stage at the Joburg Theatre from September 12.