In 1959 musical theatre history in South Africa was made when King Kong, an “all African jazz opera”, opened at the Witwatersrand University Great Hall. The then young Nelson Mandela was in the opening night multi-racial audience. The music and some of the lyrics were written by Todd Matshikiza, with the rest of the lyrics being written by Pat Williams. The book was by Harry Bloom. It featured an exclusively black cast and starred, inter alia, Kippie Moeketsi, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Thandi Klaasen and Miriam Makeba.
Nearly sixty years later, King Kong, Legend of a Boxer, has been refreshed (with supplemental musical numbers and script changes) for today’s audiences by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and playwright, William Nicholson. The 2017 production is slick and while it clearly respects its historical origins, it also resonates with 21st century audiences.
King Kong, directed by Jonathan Munby, is vibrant and polished and the triple threat talents of singing, acting and dancing are made to look easy (they are not) by the super talented and incredibly disciplined cast which stars Andile Gumbi as King Kong, Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce, shebeen queen and owner of Back of the Moon, Sanda Shandu as Lucky (a totsi), Tshamano Sebe as Jack, the boxing coach, Ntambo Rapatla as Nurse Miriam, Sne Dladla as Popcorn, and Lerato Mvelase as the starstruck Petal, plus an ensemble cast that falls far short of the 72 in the original production.
Andile Gumbi is good looking with an athlete’s build and he makes for a very credible heavyweight boxer. Nondumiso Tembe is slim, graceful and moves exceptionally well. Both of them have beautiful voices and clear diction and together they form a formidable team which is backed up by other excellent thespians, all of whom contribute to the energetic pace and lively vibe of the production. The four schoolboys are played by Athenkosi Mfamela, Shalom Zamisa, Sibusiso Mxosana and Aphiwe Menziwa. At one point the three female characters – Joyce, Petal and Miriam – appear together in one of the most powerful and moving trios I have ever experienced, and one is able to reflect on their characters as they work through their respective experiences.
The script and lyrics switch between English and the vernacular, but even without any knowledge of the vernacular the audience is able to follow the plot without any difficulty. This conveys an authenticity to the work which is familiar to all South Africans accustomed to the mixing of languages in everyday life.
The choreography is by the internationally renowned Gregory Maqoma. The dance numbers are era correct in their township kwela flavour, with fifties and sixties dance styles. There is also a brief foray into Zulu traditional dance which thrilled the audience. The fight scenes were splendid and credit is given both to boxing coach Chris Mugisho and to fight choreographer Richard Lothian.
Musical direction is by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Lucwaba, the latter being the conductor of the nine piece band as well as the bass player. The band further comprises of Blake Hellaby on keys, Siphiwe Shiburi on drums, Billy Monama on guitar, Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji on trumpets, Zeke le Grange on tenor sax, William Hendricks on alto sax and clarinet, with Siya Makuzeni on trombone. Lingenfelder arranged Todd Matshikiza’s music, as well as creating several additional songs. It is the original songs that one hums on the way home. “Back of the Moon” is one of the loveliest South African songs ever composed.
The magnificent set was created by Paul Wills with its rusted brown is evocative of townships, boxing rings, dusty streets, busy shebeens and a gymnasium. It is cleverly constructed and as the shebeen opens out the audience gave an audible and collective gasp. I loved the simple boxing ring. Costume design by Birrie le Roux and I found them low key and entirely plausible as street wear of the day rather than the glitzy costumes of a musical production. Lighting design is by Tim Mitchell who only blinded me once with lighting from the stage, but who captured the mood of the production superbly. Sound design is by Mark Malherbe and I particularly found the sound of the lapping of water at the end so pathos filled that my eyes were temporarily affected by some form of allergy which made them water a bit.
A very brief synopsis of the musical is the true story of a heavyweight boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, born in Vryheid, Natal, in 1921 but who came to Johannesburg. Dlamini had a great career as a pugilist before his life degenerated into one of drunkenness, petty crime and gang violence. Eventually he knifed his girlfriend. At his trial he requested that he be given the death penalty. He was sentenced to 12 years hard labour (the judge in the production hands down a life sentence and Wikipaedia confused the issue further by claiming it was a 14 year sentence) instead, and was found drowned (although one external source said his body was never recovered) two weeks later in April 1957. It was believed that the former athlete had committed suicide. This chilling story finds resonance with the millions of South Africans who have more recently watched Oscar Pistorius, another famed and feted athlete, on trial for murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. It shows a long and chilling history of femicide in South Africa that cuts across both time and racial lines. The story of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown indicates that this extends across borders too. It is not a problem unique to South Africa. The real name of the woman who was murdered by Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini was Maria Miya.
The tragic love story of King Kong and Joyce is softened in the musical by the secondary love story with Pop and Petal and Jack and Miriam marrying in a humorous scene which jarred slightly against the impending doom which the audience knows is coming. This is the single thing I disliked most about the production.
One of the more unusual things about the production is that both at the beginning and after interval there is “action” on stage and in the audience during the time that the audience is entering and settling. The house lights remain on during this time and it involves the audience, drawing them into the unfolding scenes as curious onlookers. I thought this worked very well, as evidenced where the penny whistle players did their bit with a collection hat and several audience members responded by putting money into the hat. That was heart-warming.
Over all this is an excellent production and it is well worth seeing.
NOTE: I attended the first preview performance of the work at the Joburg Theatre on 12 September 2017.
KING KONG runs at the Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg from 12 September – 8 October, running Tuesdays through Saturdays at 20:00 with 16:00 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets range from R150 to R350 and are available through Webtickets.