The Evolution of King Kong

King Kong
Shebeen queen Joyce (Miriam Makeba) dances with Lucky (Joseph Mogotsi). Photo courtesy of Irene Menell

Fifty-eight years after it was first staged in 1959, an ‘evolution’ of South Africa’s most significant, influential and iconic ‘all African jazz opera’, King Kong, will open at the Fugard Theatre in July before travelling to the Joburg Theatre in September.

The original production of King Kong was seen by over 200 000 South Africans of all races during its 1959 to 1960 tour of the country before a more Westernised version toured to London’s West End in 1961, leading to international fame for many of its cast members. It featured some of the country’s most legendary musical talents of the 1950s, including accomplished composer Todd Matshikiza, songstress Miriam Makeba, and instrumentalists Kippie Moeketsi, Sol Klaaste, Mackay Davashe, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh MasekelaThe production is an incredible example of South African cultural heritage and was influential in the shaping of post-war R&B and jazz around the world. The iconic status of the play and the historical memory it holds, has made bringing it back to SA stages complex. Securing the rights alone, which were spread among several of its black and white collaborators, as well as those original artists who were associated with the production and are still alive, has taken Fugard Theatre producer Eric Abraham 20 years. The collaborative jazz opera is based on the life of heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini who, due to his immense strength, was known as King Kong. Dlamini became a legend during his lifetime before his death, an apparent suicide, in 1957. After attaining fame and celebrity as a boxer, he lost it all and became a bouncer for clubs and dance halls. Gangsterism, drug dens, murder and a shebeen queen were all elements of King Kong’s life that Matshikiza, who did the composition, Harry Bloom, who wrote the book, and Pat Williams, who wrote the original storyline and lyrics, used to create a jazz opera that fascinated audiences the world over.

So we are not glossing over anything. I think the message at the centre of the piece is still very strong and resonant

King Kong
Shebeen queen Joyce (Miriam Makeba) dances with Popcorn (Dan Poho). Photo courtesy of Irene Menell

Set in the then hub of South African cultural life, Sophiatown, the original production featured an all-black, 72 strong cast, including some of the most popular singers in 1950s South Africa, Makeba who played the unforgettable shebeen queen Joyce, Nathan Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers played the original King Kong, as well as a young Caiphus Semenya, Sophie Mgcina, Letta Mbulu and Benjamin Masinga. A carefully considered creative team has been brought together to bring this exciting ‘evolution’ of King Kong to life. British theatre director Jonathan Munby, who also worked with the Fugard on A Human Being Died That Night in 2014, has signed on, with Cape Town’s Mdu Kweyama as associate director. Oscar-nominated screenwriter, novelist and playwright William Nicholson, who wrote the screenplay for the film adaptations of Sarafina and Long Walk to Freedom, has revised the book, Sipumzo Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder are the musical directors and Gregory Maqoma will do the choreography. Munby, who has termed the 2017 rendition of King Kong an ‘evolution’ rather than a ‘revival’, has been working with Lucwaba and Lingenfelder to restore the authenticity of Matshikiza’s musical arrangements, which were altered for the 1960 West End run in order to appeal to ‘Western’ tastes. ‘All authenticity and originality is lost in an attempt to create a quintessential Broadway sound. There is, in many ways, a cheapening of it all. It is loud, it is bombastic and blown through the roof in terms of scale. It was Westernised in a way now that feels offensive,’ Munby told the Daily Maverick.

We want to get away from any preconceived idea of what a musical should sound like, to get rid of all the ‘Broadwaydisation’, to stay true to the original and bring it to the 21st century

King Kong
Nathan Mdledle, Miriam Makeba and cast of King Kong. Photo courtesy of Irene Menell

‘I believe the original is a statement by its creators of what was possible. Back then, ten years into apartheid, it feels to me that it is a statement that is fairly subversive. And we have in a sense tried to mirror that all these years later. It must have been really difficult the first time in terms of the inexperience of much of the cast in terms of acting. Those performers had no training and very little experience so they had to rely very much on music and movement in order to tell the story. That has changed now. Circumstances have changed. We have people who are actors, singers and dancers which really allows us to open up the piece. So we are not glossing over anything. I think the message at the centre of the piece is still very strong and resonant. It feels to me like a cautionary tale, a kind of warning about responsibility, about following a man who makes these extraordinary mistakes in his life but what he doesn’t do is contain this power, this violence inside of him. That is what the story is about, a man who abuses that thing that is inside him and does not control it. If we do not control this innate power within us all this is what it might lead to. And we need to be absolutely respectful and understanding of where it came from and the circumstances that created it. But our first responsibility, I think, is about the connection between the moment and the audience, a new audience, young people, have no idea. We have the responsibility of delivering a great piece of theatre. And if in the doing of that we can tell a story of the past that is illuminating and touch on some subjects that are still resonant today then all the better.

Nothing from the original has been taken out. Jonathan’s idea is to make sure that everyone enjoys this musical – whether you lived during the 1950s or not; South African or not. King Kong won’t lose its values and originality in 2017

King Kong
King Kong (Nathan Mdledle) and Sgt Dlamini (Bennett Masango). Photo courtesy of Irene Menell

‘We want to get away from any preconceived idea of what a musical should sound like, to get rid of all the “Broadwaydisation”, to stay true to the original and bring it to the 21st century. What we are staging in this new version are things that they could not do originally, which is a heightened stylisation of the boxing scenes and the use of physical theatre. We have also composed new songs for those moments where we feel that something is missing and needs fleshing out. We identified three of those moments and were to compose songs from an old archival audio recording Esme Matshikiza (Todd’s widow) found of Todd bashing out themes and ideas for the show on the piano. In terms of performers, the music for the guys is easy to sing but the music for the women is hard. It is a jazz sound. Musical theatre is written for a chest sound. If you listen to “Back of the Moon” its register is very high and we don’t train female voices in musical theatre these days to sing up there.’

And we need to be absolutely respectful and understanding of where it came from and the circumstances that created it

King Kong
Miriam Makeba

Award-winning South African director, Mdu Kweyama, who will be working alongside Munby, has worked extensively with companies like Magnet Theatre and with playwrights like Mike van Graan. Kweyama’s work is known for his innovative mix of dance and physical theatre. As to his role in King Kong, Kweyama told IOL: ‘I am involved in the casting and work-shopping ideas around physicality. Jonathan shares his ideas with me. I provide input and feedback, but he does have a final say in everything that will be done in the show. ‘Nothing from the original has been taken out. Jonathan’s idea is to make sure that everyone enjoys this musical – whether you lived during the 1950s or not; South African or not. King Kong won’t lose its values and originality in 2017.’ Working on a musical ‘is not something I have done before, so this is an enormous opportunity for me to learn and to grow my own skills. Working with someone as experienced as Jonathan is amazing. For me this is about re-living my parents’ history, going through our photo albums, asking questions, reading up on life in Sophiatown – that kind of situation. I think being truthful to the core characteristics of the people presented in the play is very important.’

Tickets for the show range from R130 to R280. Booking is through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, www.computicket.com or at the Fugard Box Office on 021 461 4554. Friends of the Fugard members receive a 15% discount on tickets.

Click here for the latest King Kong news: Cast announced for King Kong

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