King Kong, the musical that is one of South Africa’s preeminent moments of musical protest theatre, was born of a time when a brutal, illegitimate regime strengthened its stranglehold on visible resistance, and the world needed a cultural Trojan Horse to expose the plight of black South Africans to the world, writes MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA.
Music, as a form of protest or rejoice, has been and continues to be a potent tool in African politics. Political parties and civil organisations often break into song, whether disgruntled or triumphant. When we rejoice in worship or mourn a death, song is the medium, the highway of communicative expressions. South Africa in the 1950s was no different.
At a time when political affiliation was held with suspicion or condemned, and inferiority complexes were at an all-time low, Mr Todd Matshikiza wrote a classical theatrical script that would reverberate all the way to the West End by 1961. Prior to that era, cultural communities were generally open-ended. The race theory was still a myth. People could diffuse with ease and authentic will. It was the same for music, theatre and the arts, really.
“Sophiatown was the epitome of the free spirit of expressionism. No boundaries, just limitless creativity and public entertainment.”
Sophiatown was the epitome of the free spirit of expressionism. No boundaries, just limitless creativity and public entertainment. The Drum era got its identity from these colourful times. Mr Drum himself, Mr Henry Nxumalo, and literature demigods Mr Can Themba, Mr Nat Nakasa, Mr Lewis Nkosi and others were the hip journalists who archived creative life and the perks of night life. Back of the Moon, a night life shebeen that doubled as a performance venue in the mould of Mr Fela Kuti’s Shrine, was the canvas on which this classic took shape.
The original King Kong production celebrated the Back of the Moon with a song titled after the club. The beautiful voices of the likes of Ms. Abigail Kubeka, amplified by Mr Kippie Moeketsi’s horn genius, were the norm. Black theatre was alive and well, not only in Johannesburg, but nationally. Mr Gibson Kente down in Port Elizabeth was well on his way to becoming a performance art and theatre legend. Mr Ken Gampu was gearing up for an illustrious career in Hollywood. They would both end up being pioneers of the Bantu film production economy. But like any other racist environment at the time, separate development and segregation laws were the order of the day and the backdrop of an extremely talented big-haired, bellbottom wearing and black power charged up society.
The Treason Trial of 1956 set the tone for what would be a classic era of South African music heritage. Since the 1949 Programme of Action by the congress movement, there had been a somewhat militant stance in the resistance against Apartheid. The Africanist stance to the regime was provoking young Africans to challenge the pass laws ideologically, while juggling the need to earn in the big cities. The urban pull caught all young men and women from the rural homelands. It was no different for a fortune seeking Mr Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini. The promise of a better life in the city of gold, Africa’s own Colorado, was too magnetic to resist. His is the story of a rise to urban folk legend and a dreaded boxing champion, straight to a dismal fall into the abyss of the criminal underworld.
He tormented his opponents and sometimes mocked them for being puny and soft as they boxed with gloves. It came to a point where no one wanted to be his opponent. He is said to have mocked his defeated victims with his gigantic laugh. His life had the typical undertones of what would become the plight of most African men at the time. Young, fired up, bold, broke and held down by the yoke of migrant labour accompanied by separate development laws of apartheid rule.
“The urban pull caught all young men and women from the rural homelands. It was no different for a fortune seeking Mr Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini, whose story is one of a rise to urban folk legend and a dreaded boxing champion, straight to a dismal fall into the abyss of the criminal underworld.”
Fundamentally, Mr Matshikiza was no different to the subject of his musical. He was also from the homelands and was lured into inner city Johannesburg by the desired promise of a better life. He reflected his situation and the society around him perfectly through this musical. Mr Harry Bloom wrote the story/book that the theatrical production would bring to life. Mr Matshikiza wrote some of the musical lyrics and composed all the music. Mr Pat Williams was the chief lyricists. Even though the production crew was somewhat universal, the cast was an all African contingency that would in time serve as a career launchpad for some musical greats we celebrate today. Mr Hugh Masekela, Ms. Miriam Makeba, Mr Caphius Semenya, Ms. Letta Mbulu, Ms. Thandi Klaasen, Mr Jonas Gwangwa, Ms. Sophie Mgcina, Mr Makhaya Ntshoko and Mr Ben Masinga to mention a few. A Galacticos of shooting stars really in a far as African jazz music heritage.
As Apartheid got sterner and firmer, especially in the city centres around the country, the political movements of the day were under threat. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed and banned within nine months of its birth, and its leader, Mr Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, incarcerated for inciting violence and thus committing high treason. The aforementioned Treason Trial was in full swing. As the humanitarian catastrophe intensified and the movements formed against it were increasingly thwarted, the struggle had to take on a different tone, and expression through the arts often broke the barriers put up by the regime. King Kong was the perfect answer.
Mr Nkosi writes: “The resounding welcome accorded to the musical at Wits University Great Hall, in Johannesburg, on Feb 2nd, 1959, was not so much for the jazz musical as a finished artistic product as it was applause for an idea which had been achieved by pooling together resources from both black and white artists in the face of impossible odds.” This idea would take King Kong to the West End in London in 1961, and would deliver the political overtone to the world, without violent protest.
King Kong was a cultural passport for the politically charged up and socially active cultural performer and on it, bled the stamps of a brutal lived experience. The song “Kwela Long” (kwela-kwela was the slang reference to police pickup trucks, that would pick up Africans after a night out at the shebeen, failing to produce pass books) embodies this sentiment. It utilises wordplay to strike a metaphoric chord: Ride Along + Kwela-Kwela = Kwela Long. The irony here is that even though the production broke fallacious racial lines, part of the roles the politically conscious crew/production members was that of jail bail coordinators, as members of the cast would often find themselves behind bars after a night out without carrying passes on the wrong side of the railway.
After the London run of the show, Ms. Makeba went on to display her talents in the United States of America going on to address the United Nations. Her efforts catapulted the effort of creating awareness about the racist exploitative regime in Azania. Even though it was a politically charged production, it was also a story of love, friends, family, struggle, boxing, gangs, society and the cultural realities of township South Africa, realities largely ignored by the global community, until a Trojan horse was left on its doorstep.
The Fugard Theatre’s production of King Kong is currently showing at the Joburg Theatre.
Get your tickets here: https://www.joburgtheatre.com/king-kong/