By BRUCE DENNILL
King Kong / Directed by Jonathan Munby / Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
The phrase “long-awaited” is generally over-used in publicity bilge in a pointless attempt, perhaps, to convince readers that their lives have been oddly empty without whatever those words precede.
In this case, though, it is fitting and accurate. Todd Matshikiza and Harry Bloom’s musical (or jazz opera, depending on your definitions) was a groundbreaking, multi-racial smash hit in apartheid South Africa in 1959 and it then enjoyed an almost equally successful run in London’s West End in 1961. And then it stalled, waiting, like its title character, for another shot at the big time. A long list of iconic performers used the show as a springboard to lasting international fame and the social and political impact of the piece extended far beyond the box office, but staging King Kong proved to be a difficult thing to do, with current producer Eric Abraham apparently taking some 20 years to secure all the necessary rights for his Fugard Theatre production. This process was complicated by the ongoing complexities created by the turbulent process by which the musical was originally created, with issues such as racial tension, cultural appropriation, unwanted changes to the London production and misplaced credit having been among the sticking points that impeded the smooth progression of the piece from one stage to another.
That lengthy gestation period has a couple of effects. One: the hype for this production takes care of itself for those in the know. And two: for those who are relatively out of the loop – through relative youth or an awareness of only the more mainstream titles in the genre – this all-South African melange of original music, energetic dance and dialogue and singing in a range of our official languages comes across as impossibly fresh.
The story is that of real-life boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, a tragic character who was an immensely talented pugilist but a deeply flawed man who struggled with a number of personal demons as well as kicking against the straps of a government and ruling class who classified him as inferior. His prowess with his fists and the notoriety his talents bought him gave Dlamini – nicknamed King Kong for his size and strength – the standing he was after, but his desire to stay there despite all the challenges he faced led to paranoia and poor decision-making, with often tragic consequences. It’s a tale that hardly needs dramatisation, and even simplified and polished as it is for the stage, it’s gritty, dramatic stuff.
The casting of Andile Gumbi in the title role is a master-stroke. He has the build, athleticism, good looks and brash charm of a young Muhammad Ali, a more famous and familiar boxing reference than Dlamini for most audience members but, as such, immediately believable as the sort of community focus point that King Kong was. Gumbi is an excellent singer, too – he has to be, to keep up with the rest of the cast, whose vocals are uniformly top-notch – and adds layers of characterisation to the role, completing a magnetic package.
He is matched in skill if not in larger-than-life charisma by Sne Dladla as Pop, the local barber and the piece’s de facto narrator. It’s a wonderful, multi-faceted part, and Dladla delivers on every level, adding wit and warmth to sensitivity and compassion. Sanda Shandu as violent gang leader Lucky is also superb, his fluidity in handling a blade and his handling of the criminal’s knife-edge (if you will) temper making the character genuinely scary.
The female leads, while given less stage time than King and Pop, are fantastic too. Shebeen queen Joyce was played by the cover for the role, Edith Plaatjies, whose effortless sensuality, sass and glorious singing voice make it tough to believe that she’s not the guaranteed starter as that character. Lerato Mvelase as Petal and Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam provide expert support, with the combination of their three voices in the second act one of the musical hightlights of the show.
Another is the haunting In The Queue (Hambani Madoda), sung a capella by the ensemble and strikingly exposed in the midst of Paul Wills’ imposing and technically ingenious set. The more upbeat numbers – including King Kong, Gumboot Dance, Party Tonight and the ageless Back Of The Moon – are beautifully embellished by choreography by Gregory Maqoma that gives joyous voice to the remarkable physical capacity of the cast.
This is a production in which the attention paid to each detail is obvious and appreciated. The lingo may keep it as something of a niche concern in an industry in which the consistent market leaders are more mainstream in their presentation, but Matshikiza’s music is magnificent and it’s difficult to imagine a better collective performance from the cast and the band. This King Kong deserves the success enjoyed by the original production and more, and to have the onstage spectacle eclipse the lingering offstage politics.