Since it was first staged in 1995, Kat and the Kings has been praised, acclaimed and awarded in and out of South Africa and, incredibly, the show still fills the theatre almost every night. Kat's creator, David Kramer, porkpie hat firmly set on his head, talks to EMILIE GAMBADE about times past and present.
Kat and the Kings starts with the husky voice of Old Kat, a griot from the Cape raised on ghoema music, light dancing in the eyes, feet tapping on the floor, the reminiscences of a kid from District Six who held the streets in the palm of his hand.
No matter how different their upbringings, there’s a little bit of Old Kat in David Kramer. He sits at the cafe in Wembley Square, Cape Town, a shy-looking smile on the lips, at times distant, at times warm and engaging, and embarks on a passionate discussion about what drove him to be the person he is today, a musicals’ man, a storyteller.
“Why did I do what I’ve done? Because I couldn’t help myself.”
And surely, the main character of Kat and the Kings, Kat Diamond, now played by Danny Butler and his younger version, Dean Dorvan Balie, shares his feeling: he can’t help but sing, dance and sing some more, no matter the obstacles and the heavy weight of apartheid, voice rising over the injustice of a time where the colour of your skin mattered more than the talent in your blood. Kat Diamond in Kramer’s hands is a vibrant metaphor of the writer’s own free spirit.
“I started out as a performer but I quickly realised that what I wanted to do was to tell stories. My songs were very much stories as opposed to pop songs.”
And so Kramer wrote stories and lyrics, filled with humour and hope, wrapped in music dwelling into the Afrikaans language, the roots of the Cape and South African identity.
A call of the stage and passion for telling real South African stories came after he left the country to study in England. There he realised how “distorted” the story told at school was. “I was taught a white person’s history of South Africa. When I went to university outside of South Africa and I was able to access information that was banned in my country, I started to understand that there was a whole suppressed history: the main one was the history of the language. And, because of this, the history of the coloured people in the Cape was also suppressed.”
Kat and the Kings is a musical based on a true story and essentially about talented young people being held back by apartheid. It is also a comment on the apartheid regime, a celebration of people’s tenacity and their struggle to survive off their talent under difficult conditions. It is effervescent, balanced, holding all the ingredients to reach people’s hearts, turning a local story into a universal topic.
The characters are impeccable. Zakhariyah Toerien is hilarious in the role of Magoo, a mix between a nerd and a piano player, and shows physical and vocal dexterity that promise long-lasting success. The costumes lack some finesse and would have benefited from a vintage injection: the synthetic material clashes with the credible early 1960s background, but that would have to be the one false note in a rather well oiled musical machine.
Nested right in District Six, under the roof of the Fugard Theatre, the play found its matching box: the place is intimate enough to bring the audience into the story and the music makes the floor vibrate, the sounds and voices floating in the audience’s bones.
Kramer only made slight changes to the 2012 version of the play, a very different approach from when he and Taliep Petersen created the musical in 1995.
“Originally, I created the piece on the floor of the rehearsal room with the actors. I had a strong idea of an old man looking back at his younger self… I wanted to explore how people change because of how life has been treating them. (I explored) Salie Daniels’ life, the older man, because he lived the story in some ways. I (asked) him questions about how it was like to live in the streets of District Six once he had run away from home, starting to sing with his friends. That whole story fascinated me, the sort of romance of a vagabond lifestyle, something I never had, the contrast between my response to rock’n roll and (his).”
Kramer's appetite for precision became insatiable, interviewing musicians, actors, trying to understand what it meant to be a coloured performer, exploring the singing and dancing scene in the late 50s and early 60s, when the apartheid government was at the peak of its power.
Not often do you see a writer shaping his play around his actors, but Kramer did. He built the different characters around Daniels’ friends, improvising on the floor, writing lyrics at night, bringing it back in the morning, while Petersen worked on the music, outside the rehearsal process, isolated in his studio.
“One character was played by jazz pianist Mark Fransman, (but) because Mark was such a great pianist, the piano came into the story. The song that is now a duet was a solo song that Mark played on the piano: he sang it. I wrote to the strengths of the actors... Even now, the young man who plays Bingo, he is a fantastic singer but he is not a ladies’ man: he is gay. In the rehearsals I found that he was never going to convince me that girls were his first love, so I’ve just altered that and I ‘kept’ him gay: I’m willing to make it work for (the actors).”
Seven weeks later, the play was on stage at the Dock Rd Theatre in the Waterfront, and the rest is history.
Kramer’s rewriting of Kat and the Kings is now complete. He might have reached his era of revivals, but he also has a new album on the grill and is ready to go back to the Baxter Theatre with his band.
“I am very aware of my time now and I’ve got to use it properly. There is no shortage of ideas, there is a shortage of time.” DM
- Kat and the Kings is playing at the Fugard Theatre until 18th of August, and Pieter Toerien’s Theatre at Montecasino, 30th September - 18 November 2012.
Main: David Kramer (Michael le Grange)
Second photo: Kat and the Kings (Jesse Kramer)