It was billed as an “all-African jazz opera”; it was a unique collaboration between black and white, South Africa and the UK. After its opening at the Wits theatre in 1959 it was seen locally by 200,000 people including a young Nelson Mandela. “King Kong” featured some of the greatest and most influential South African talents including composer Todd Matshikiza as well as musicians and singers like Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. Does the reimagining live up to the hype of the original? By MARIANNE THAMM.
For many of us who were too young to catch the now iconic King Kong – All African Jazz Opera way back in the late 1950s, all we have had is the recorded music performed by the original cast, a soundtrack that has endured for over half a century and that has embedded itself in the South African musical tapestry.
But the opera has, until now, been preserved in separate shards of amber. There is the soundtrack, then a classic photograph here of a young Miriam Makeba as the shebeen queen Joyce, another there of the large original cast (there were 72 performers) rehearsing.
There are the stories of those who went into exile while touring with King Kong in the UK, artists like Makeba, Gwangwa, Masekela, Semenya. Then there are the snippets of memories captured later by Hugh Masekela in his sprawling and hugely entertaining biography, Still Grazing.
There is something about the spirit of the ‘50s, a time of resistance to violent forced removals and the growing repression of the the apartheid government (the Treason Trials began in 1957), that manifested and became encapsulated in a common, urban South African cultural idiom.
There were the clothes, the hats, the shoes, the cars. There was the booze (shebeens and skokiaan, a home-brewed concoction), the writers, journalists and thinkers (Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi). There were the Drum magazine models like blues queen Dolly Rathebe, there were the handsome political leaders like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, there were the American-style gangsters and there were the boxers like Ezekiel Dlamini.
The original King Kong – An All African Jazz Opera received mixed reviews when it eventually opened in London’s West end. There was criticism that the story was one-dimensional and apolitical, the acting wooden. But generally the score, the arrangements (which were “adapted” in places to suit a “European” audience) and the spirit of the production were favourably received.
It has taken Fugard Theatre founding and executive producer Eric Abraham around 20 years to secure the rights to the iconic musical which opened last month at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. This reimagining is directed by the celebrated and versatile UK-based Jonathan Munby, echoing the original SA/UK collaboration.
With all of this history swirling there are huge expectations, of course, of the new King Kong – Legend of a Boxer. Put them aside is this reviewer’s advice and attempt to enjoy this 21st Century rendition without too much mining of the past.
For this is a production driven by sparkling new South African talents who bring to it a sophistication and professionalism – particularly in relation to the singing and dancing – that was absent in the original, which was raw and at times unwieldy.
Munby and Associate Director Mdu Kweyama have ensured a subtle freshness to it all and have conjured memorable performances from every single member of this ensemble no matter how small the role. Together they have brought an energy and zest that overlays any cracks or weaknesses that might have existed.
The search for the leads for this reimagining was, one can imagine, a thorough and difficult one. There were going to be comparisons of course, especially with regards to Joyce, the role that exposed Makeba as a singer to a much wider international audience. Then there is the tragic lead, the handsome brooding King Kong, originally played by Nathan Mdledle.
Back in the ’50s, performers were not expected to be great all-rounders. Today it is a prerequisite. To sing, to dance and to act, all at the same time, is par for the course. And so it is that Andile Gumbi (who played Simba in The Lion King) and Nondumiso Tembe (who has a list of international TV and acting credits) – both highly accomplished performers on international stages – form the two, solid central pillars of this production as the doomed lovers; the handsome but quick-to-temper Dlamini and Joyce, the sultry, self-possessed shebeen queen.
Both performers possess versatile and flexible voices that effortlessly work their way around Matshikiza’s extremely complex jazz score. In fact, Tembe has a voice that surpasses Makeba’s (if one dare offer such an opinion) and her onstage presence is mesmerising. Gumbi too is perfect as Dlamini (in fact he looks remarkably like Muhammad Ali) and he is as handsome as he is cocky, as vulnerable as he is violent.
The glue holding it all together though is Sne Dladla as Pops, the narrator who is smitten with Petal (Lerato Mvelase) who is in turn in love with the stand-offish King Kong who is smitten with Joyce.
Dladla is a shockingly versatile performer, a great comedian, a singer, a dancer, a clown and musician and it is his warmth and presence that underpins the entire story.
Sanda Shandu as the menacing gang boss, Lucky, struts and owns the stage like the violent kingpin he plays, while the veteran Tshamano Sebe, as Jack, the boxing promoter, holds a delicate balance of bravado, fear and scuzzbag as he betrays King Kong to pay off a debt. There are so many other performances that stand out including Lerato Mvelase as the love-struck Petal who hankers after King Kong. This entire ensemble works like a well-oiled machine.
Gregory Maqoma’s choreography is simply magnificent, marrying traditional South African dance with the jitterbug, boogie woogie and swing of the ’50s, but all of it spritzed with a modern twist.
Musical Director, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, who has also composed additional music and arrangements to update the original story, has honoured Matshikiza’s original score and ideas in the five new compositions that were required to drive and flesh out the original narrative. These include King Kong vs Joe Khanyile, Mark III Loadstar Flatbed Truck, Life Goes On, The Business of Fear and King Kong vs Greb Mabisa and they all patch seamlessly into the original score, so much so that you might suspect they were there to start with.
The original hits and classics including Back O the Moon, King Kong, Sad Time, Bad Times, In the Queue all remain and are expertly brought to life by a nine-piece band led by Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba also on bass and including Lumanyano Mzi on drums, Blake Hellaby on keys, Byron Manfred Carr on guitar, Lwanda Gogwana on 1st trumpet, Joseph Kunnuji on 2nd trumpet, Zeke le Grange on tenor sax, William Hendricks on alto sax and clarinet and Lee-Roy Simpson on trombone.
Nothing has been overlooked in this production, from the gorgeous and versatile set to the lighting and the magnificent costumes, all of which adds to its authentic feel.
The story, of course, is trapped in another era, especially with regards to male attitudes towards women. The tragedy is that King Kong murders the woman he loves before killing himself later after he had been sentenced to life in jail. As such the story holds the consequences of prolonged social, economic and political trauma in South Africa.
If there is one criticism of this reimagining it is the soft focus of the murder of Joyce, a pivotal scene in the final downfall of a flawed hero. In a country plagued by violent and dangerous hypermasculinity it would have perhaps been appropriate to render King Kong less sympathetically as he plunges a knife into Joyce in that moment. While this is theatre, it is not Romeo and Juliet.
There is, however, a subtle nod to contemporary South Africa which, if you don’t look for it, you might miss. In the scene featuring The Queue, where workers wait at a “blacks only” bus stop, one of the passengers is draped in a green blanket, which has come to symbolise the Marikana Massacre.
The huge investment in this production on all levels renders it something other than and different from the original. It pays homage to the 1950’s version and while it remains true to the score and the book (apart from the update at the start to contexualise it for new audiences), King Kong – Legend of a Boxer is its own entity and while it is tethered to the past it soars to its own heights. The production runs at the Fugard until 2 September before transferring to the Joburg Theatre. DM
Photo: The company of KING KONG – Legend of a Boxer. Andile Gumbi (centre) as King Kong. Photo: Daniel Rutland Manners