MASTER CLASS: Choreographer Gregory Maqoma in rehearsal.
MASTER CLASS: Choreographer Gregory Maqoma in rehearsal.
LEADS: Andile Gumbi as King Kong and Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce. Picture: Daniel Rutland Manners
LEADS: Andile Gumbi as King Kong and Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce. Picture: Daniel Rutland Manners
IN STEP: Rushney Ferguson, Barileng Malibye and Ntando Rapatla at rehearsal.
IN STEP: Rushney Ferguson, Barileng Malibye and Ntando Rapatla at rehearsal.
The jazz musical King Kong
served as the first window for the world to peep through into the life of black South Africa.

The 1959 production of South Africa’s first black musical is famous for the music of Todd Matshikiza and the writing of Pat Williamson and Harry Bloom.

The story is set in the hub of Johannesburg cultural life Sophiatown, where artists, hippies, and wise-guys hobnobbed and pata-pata(d) in one spirit.

Its popularity caught on like a pop epiphany. After a historic opening in Johannesburg, it shut down Cape Town, and then Durban. Council is said to have approved the extension of a hall in Port Elizabeth to accommodate the spectacle.

Across the sea the curtain opened in London to staggering crowds. This is how South African entertainment got its wings as it launched the international careers for the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and many others.

In what is set not to be a resurrection but rather a rebirth of a South African icon, Eric Abraham presents King Kong - the life Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini lived and wasted in South Africa will once again be revisited.

Born 1925 in Vryheid, northern KwaZulu-Natal, by social class Ezekiel Dlamini could be branded a country bumpkin, a man from a rural black hole.

In his search of independence and emancipation, he first found work as a gardener. They say a few months later, maybe yawning-bored from pulling the madam’s vile weeds, Dlamini disappeared.

The day he walked into a boxing gymnasium in Johannesburg the door closed behind him, and behind his past life.

Dlamini is said to have ridiculed men who fought with their fists under some weird cushions. Nevertheless, after much talk about nothing, he was handed a pair of boxing gloves and motioned towards the ring by a very ticked-off boxing trainer.

A few rounds later, he kissed the canvas and was left counting the stars above his head. When the wires in his head regained a signal, he decided to join the boxing club. Dlamini went on donnering all who came before him on his way to the apex of his boxing career - heavyweight champion.

They say by genes and blood-type Dlamini was a bully and a braggart. The limitations of a black life during those dark days saw him fall from ring and life.

He found solace and comfort in the waters of Babylon, and went about instilling fear in people. Well-known and feared for applying his brand of jungle justice, his intimidating figure and personality was used at dance halls to manage unruly patrons and other problematic beings.

One night in an act of unquantifiable rage and jealousy, Dlamini killed his girlfriend.

When the police arrived, he refused to put his knife down, but the cops must have been happy to put their target practice lessons to use. They popped three bullets in him, but this was no ordinary man, this was “King Kong”.

A few days at the hospital and he was ready to face the law’s music.

Perhaps in an attempt corner his last opponent, the law, Dlamini tried to instruct justice on how to deal with him and asked for the death penalty. But the judge under his gown and wig said ”12 years hard labour” before the sound of his wooden hammer filled the room.

It was a historic moment when the curtain opened at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town this week.

From the director to the lead, to the guy who just stands there doing God-knows-what, a team of talents and creatives has been assembled.

Multiple award-winning actress and singer-songwriter Nondumiso Tembe will be recreating the role of Joyce, which propelled Miriam Makeba to international fame in the original production of King Kong.

“The pivotal thing for me has been our visionary director Jonathan Munby’s decision for us to approach this not as a revival, but as a re-imagining of the original piece, which has been so liberating because that has given room for our own artistic interpretation.

“I am so grateful I have been encouraged to bring Joyce to life in a way that is unique and authentic to me. So I am celebrating Miriam Makeba in my performance and honouring her extraordinary legacy, but also making the role my own,” said Tembe.

“The music is incredible but extremely challenging. Our brilliant MDs, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba, have been amazing and so supportive in helping me find the right vocal approach and tone - how to make these songs my own, how to use my strengths and help my voice shine at its best in this very difficult singing role.

“Likewise, Jonathan and our formidable choreographer, Gregory Maqoma, are helping me craft a performance that is dynamic and nuanced, bold and brave and compelling and that has emotional and psychological depth. I am so grateful and very blessed to have such an amazing support system as I embark upon one of the most challenging roles of my career.”

Actor, singer and dancer Andile Gumbi, well known for the character Zweli in the popular soap opera IsiBaya, will take the title role. Gumbi made his Broadway debut as Simba in Disney’s The Lion King and has starred in productions of this musical in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai and South Africa.

Asked how he relates to the story, Gumbi said: “It doesn’t relate directly but the story serves as a cautionary tale to us all to take responsibility for our own destinies.”

Master choreographer Maqoma has been roped in to create movement to the music of Todd Matshikiza. “The most exciting part about creating the choreography to Todd Matshikiza’s music is that the music has many layers and allows me to be imaginative and to add other rhythms, which at times counteract the music, creating a hybrid of music and choreography that lands itself in Sophiatown but that is also distincly African.”