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KING KONG: Our knot of time and music

King Kong
Lerato Mvelase, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe

It took Eric Abraham, the founding producer and owner of the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town’s District Six, nearly 20 years to bring the legendary South African musical King Kong back to the stage.

Like a ping pong ball down a

mountain stream

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…

(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)

The ‘All African Jazz Opera’, with the music of Todd Matshikiza, became a smash hit in 1959 and launched the international fame of many South African jazz legends like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. It was Eric Abraham who encouraged Pat Williams, King Kong’s original lyricist, to write her very personal memoir of the first ever South African musical to coincide with the stage revival. KING KONG: Our knot of time and music was written on Abraham’s suggestion to ‘set the record straight as the real heroes of the musical have not been sufficiently recognised.’ Eighty-three-year-old Pat Williams’ KING KONG: Our knot of time and music takes us from the behind-the-scenes in the 1950s to the present day. It is so much more than an account of a musical production, it is a wonderful narrative of a time of total racial integration in South Africa during the 1950s, a time of deep-seated cruelty, restriction and humiliation of the apartheid era. The African idiom of ‘a knot of time’, Williams describes as: ‘When people, place, the moment itself, and other ingredients and forces one isn’t even aware of, come together as if in a chemical eruption, and produce a phenomenon of a dimension and consequence far beyond what was originally conceived.’ Williams writes about her collaboration with musician and composer Todd Matshikiza. Her admiration of Matshikizas’s music, after Irene Menell introduced them and set designer Arthur Goldreich. She writes about her very close friendship with Matshikiza and his wife Esme. Later they were joined by Leon Gluckman as stage director, Ian Bernhardt as the impresario, choreographer Arnold Dover, Robert Loder, who managed the fundraising and of course Harry Bloom who tried so hard to be the known as ‘the man behind the musical’.

King Kong
Nondumiso Tembe

Williams recalls the growing King Kong community of musicians, performers, organisers, costume makers and supporters. ‘Most of us were in our early 20s, young and inexperienced… we came from disparate segments of our segregated and unhappy country, and for the most part had no pretensions or even ambitions to be in show business…we knew, and at the same time could hardly be bothered to know, that as the weeks went by we would be flying in the face of precedent, ignoring social and conventional rules, and breaking the actual laws of the land as well. We couldn’t avoid it. This was probably the first time black and white people had ever worked so openly together on a project which was not in any way political or “subversive” – though of course, many people saw what we were doing as both those things, and they didn’t take kindly to it.’ Williams so brilliantly ‘signals the atmosphere of the times, which these days is mostly forgotten, indeed perhaps never even known by most of the young. We were very isolated: the outside world had not even begun to notice the distortions within which we lived. South Africa was slugged almost senseless by the infection which was apartheid. It was like trying to live well without quite enough air. If you were white, life was cut and styled for comfort and convenience… most of us whites were spoiled, in the exact sense of that word – conditioned by upbringing, to a greater or lesser degree, to think that the separateness was a law of nature, not merely restrictions brought about by unjust political laws.

King Kong
Left to right: Siphiwe Nkabinde, Sanda Shandu

An extraordinary memoir of the first ever South African musical, which has since acquired mythical proportions. Essential reading for anyone who loves our country – and, of course, its music. – Athol Fugard

‘But if you were black, then you were legally oppressed; no stranger to injustice, violence and brutality. You had no vote, no material advantages, few chances. Virtually your every move was controlled by the State.’ But here was a multiracial team that worked together with passion to bring the ‘All African Jazz Opera’ to the stage. King Kong was based on the true story of Ezekiel Dhlamini (also known as King Kong), the South African black heavyweight champion who was convicted for the jealous murder of his mistress and drowned himself in a prison dam in April 1957. The best of Johannesburg musicians was approached: The Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba and her Skylarks (including Letta Mbulu and Abigail Khubeka), The Trevor Huddleston Jazz Band members (Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa), musicians from the Union of South African Artists (Gwigwi Mrwebi, Mackay Davashe and Kippie Moeketsi) and Dorkay House players. The team was held together by the music of Todd Matshikiza who had known King Kong personally and had covered his trial for Drum magazine. The beautiful lyrics by Pat Williams are the result of the rapport that developed between her and Matshikiza. ‘one of the most difficult to find a clear melody line for was the “Death Song”, which King Kong sings from his prison cell while awaiting trial for murdering his girlfriend. The “tune”, as Todd played it, seemed to weave up and down, and in and out, a sea of sound, as if the melody line surfaced first in the one place, then in the other. So it had to be written in fragments and phrases. Looking back, though, I realise that it was the most heartfelt of all the lyrics.’

King Kong
Left to right: Sabelo Radebe, Edith Plaatjies, Lungelwa Mdekazi

I see clouds floating by…

A face… a name… a place…

Drift on,

The thing that mattered so…

My girl… long ago…

Has gone.

The whole world fades away,

Melts away.

Sun is dull… grass is grey…

Nothing real.

My world has shrunk away

Colour gone… people gone.

I’m alone… I’m alone.

King Kong opened at the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand on 2 February 1959, the only place that agreed at the time to a multiracial audience while other theatres and universities refused to host the opera. Mandela, a keen boxer, was there with his then wife, Winnie. They ended up seeing the show four times. It was an instant hit, bursting through the barriers of apartheid and eventually playing to 200 000 South Africans of every colour before transferring to London’s West End. The opening lyrics to King Kong’s biggest hit song, ‘Back of the Moon’, about the famous Sophiatown shebeen, were described by Bloke Modisane in his review for Drum: ‘Usually when the music is good, lyrics are so-so, but not so here… The lyrics are so close to the real thing one can almost smell the shebeen – the cold sweat, the stench of stale liquor.’ And suddenly Todd Matshikiza’s music was everywhere. Within a week there was not a single seat left for any of the performances and people were being turned away, eventually playing to 200 000 South Africans of every colour before transferring to London’s West End where it ground to a halt at the Princess Alice Theatre at the end of 1961. Williams’ memoir takes the story up to the present day. How she left her husband and left for a life in England. She talks about the South African performers who came to England, many never to return to South Africa.

King Kong
King Kong company

We here at Creative Feel were fortunate enough to catch up with this remarkable lady and were able to ask about the current King Kong: ‘I think it is totally brilliant in every respect. It’s very different from ours but, three generations have passed… and the audience is different… Television has happened, all kinds of things have happened… but all the elements of the old show have been taken on and treated with exactly the same love between the creative team and the cast that existed the first time round and I’ve seen it happen between them. Every time I went down there I thought, “my god, the same thing has happened, they’re all pouring everything into it, they’re all so generously giving everything they’ve got in the name of this extraordinary story and this wonderful music.” So it’s the same in that, though it’s different in respect and I just think it’s phenomenal. Another big difference is this group… they’ve been to university, they’ve been to drama school, they had very interesting accomplished lives, it’s so different, for them acting is the day job, for the original people it was squeezed in after everything else.’

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