On a windy spring day in Johannesburg, South Africa, we make our way through the dusty streets of Braamfontein to the hallowed halls of the Joburg Theatre, a venue often described as the nucleus of the country’s theatrical history. It’s the perfect setting for the retelling of South Africa’s historic hit musical, King Kong, more than half a century after it was first showcased.
Ahead of the play’s Johannesburg run – from September 12 to October 8 – we are here to meet Nondumiso Tembe, the female lead playing Joyce, a role that catapulted the late Miriam Makeba to international stardom in the original production of King Kong, which opened at the Wits University Great Hall in 1959 as South Africa’s first black musical. In 1961, the play transferred to London’s West End and was a stupendous success with a 200-performance run.
Tembe, an award-winning actress and singer-songwriter, has credits of her own, including HBO’s Golden Globe and Emmy-award winning True Blood, SABC’s Generations, the military drama SIX on the History Channel and Zulu Wedding opposite Darrin Dewitt Henson.
She walks in to Stages, the restaurant at the entrance of Joburg Theatre, with a beaming smile and a spring in her step. She is relaxed but excited– the opening night is in five days – and rehearsals are on at the theater. Ordering a cappuccino, she gets straight to the interview.
“I think for our generation, King Kong, and the legend of this man has always been alive in our consciousness as South Africans,” she says.
“And many of us were aware of it and perhaps our parents had shared some of the memories and the experience of the production with us but I don’t think we really knew or understood the story or the music in-depth… It was there alive somewhere in the back of my consciousness but I did not know too much about it and in particular, I didn’t know much about the role of Joyce.”
Tembe smiles as she also admits she was not aware Makeba originally played the role.
“I was humbled to be chosen to be part of a play that was incredibly historic, ground-breaking and deeply brilliant at the time. I was hired two weeks before we were meant to start rehearsals and honestly it’s all kind of a blur,” she laughs.
“Before I knew it, I packed up my life in Los Angeles and prepared to be away for an extended period of time. From then, I spent every waking moment researching the production, the period and the role, in particular the music.”
Set in the 1950s’ Sophiatown in Johannesburg, King Kong tells the true story of heavyweight boxing champion Ezekiel Dlamini who named himself ‘King Kong’ because of his stout physique and fearless personality. The play is a story of love and self-destruction enacted to the invigorating music of Todd Matshikiza.
Dlamini is aptly essayed by actor, singer and dancer Andile Gumbi, who made his Broadway debut as Simba in Disney’s The Lion King.
Born in Vryheid in the then Orange Free State, Dlamini himself became an unwitting symbol for freedom and the wasted power of his people under apartheid. After sudden stardom in the boxing world, Dlamini’s life degenerated into drunkenness and gang violence.
In 1957, Dlamini was to be a classic Greek tragic figure when, in a fit of jealousy, he killed his girlfriend and at his trial asked for a death sentence, to serve as a warning to others. Instead, the white judge, who refused to take instruction from a black defendant, sentenced Dlamini to 12 years of labor. But, three months later, King Kong is found drowned in a dam on a prison farm. At 36 years old, he had taken destiny into his own hands and, inadvertently, become a legend.
Dlamini’s story bears a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare’s tragic hero Othello; a man consumed by love and his vices. Like Othello, King Kong is said to have ended his own life, unable to live with the devastation he caused.
On the opening night of the re-imagining of this tragic tale in Johannesburg in September, the theater is abuzz, unlike the quiet venue it had been a few days ago when we met Tembe.
“I’m really excited about this remake,” says South African actress and author Pamela Nomvete, just before the packed show.
“Todd Matshikiza put together a phenomenal musical and John Matshikiza, his son, launched my career in the UK. So for me, it’s like being a part of history because it was so significant at the time.”
The set design on stage is simple, consisting of painted corrugated iron shutters complete with rows of brilliant golden lights, and with the energetic actors and the live nine-piece orchestra led by Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba, takes you back in time.
The costumes worn by the all-South African cast form an integral part of the musical narrative set in Sophiatown, the legendary black cultural hub featuring Kofifi dance, Kofifi music and other forms of entertainment.
The 1950s was when the ‘Kofifi style’ emerged, just as apartheid was being implemented. Men worked mainly in mines and factories wearing overalls and the only occasions they could wear a suit – an integral part of the Kofifi style – was at funerals, weddings or on payday.
It was a combination of fashion and a rebel lifestyle that defined this period and people who lived it up as best they could.
The South African project described Sophiatown as an area which “developed into the center of urban African music and culture and starting in the 1940s, it began to enrich its musical performances and elements of popular culture. Sophiatown symbolized something greater than the struggle of fitting in socially; it symbolized the fight for survival while having to deal with expensive rent, poverty, overcrowding, unfair wages, and unfair treatment. The people of Sophiatown established a strong community identity”.
The 120-minute play swiftly transforms from the playground to the boxing ring to the shanty town to the shabeen owned by Joyce, when Tembe makes her opening appearance with a soulful rendition of the legendary Back of the Moon, a sensual song written by Todd Matshikiza.
“The music for Joyce was incredibly challenging and sophisticated and multi-layered and really hard to sing. I was forced to buckle down and not think about the implications or the legacy we were carrying or the weight on our shoulders,” says Tembe at our meeting.
“The original script was very thin and the creative team agreed the characters were rather one-dimensional, more archetypes than real, complex, multi-dimensional human beings and we were very clear in our adaptation, not a revival of the original production; we were more interested in telling a human story the audience could relate to.”
It was not an easy challenge to accept for the cast.
“There were a lot of holes so we all worked very hard to fill those gaps and make it more rich and dynamic. For me the challenge with Joyce, because she was one-dimensional and didn’t really have a back story; there was the danger of her coming across as a vamp or a man-eater and I was very clear that my greatest nightmare would be for the audience members to walk away from the play thinking she deserved what she got instead of sympathizing with her,” says Tembe.
This was especially important for Tembe because of the current social context in South Africa, where there has been an epidemic of violence against women, and this being a story about femicide, it was critical for her to convey the right message.
“We really didn’t want our audiences to cheer at the end of the tragic scene between Joyce and King Kong and that actually happened when we first staged it, in preview week, so, the writer, Bill Michaelson, who I admire, snuck in, very last minute during preview week, and added a wonderful but very deep and pivotal scene between King Kong and Joyce which we rehearsed with the director for barely an hour and then Andile Gumbi and I had to perform it that very night in front of a paying audience, which was terrifying,” recounts Tembe, letting out a little scream.
Watching that scene in the play makes it hard to imagine the script was enacted without it. The raw emotions portrayed by King Kong and Joyce are paramount to the play’s climax; a pivotal scene providing great insight into the characters – who they are and why they make the decisions they do.
South African actor Andile Nebulane calls the play “magical”.
“It’s brilliant, fun to watch and you cannot fall asleep watching it. The choreography is also brilliant; Greg Maqoma did an outstanding job.”
But he adds: “Although, I do think South African theater needs to move from the third gear into sixth gear. It needs to be shaken up, we need new stuff. We need to stop recycling stories, we need to write, we need to create and we just need to be recognized by stakeholders like government, which does not take us seriously.”
When the play was originally staged in 1959, the audience also included Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie. King Kong toured South Africa for two years, and was seen by 200,000 South Africans, playing to record-breaking multiracial audiences, this as apartheid began to take shape in South Africa. King Kong in part, launched the international careers of Makeba and Hugh Masekela, among many others.
But, it was at this time that King Kong moved to London. The celebration of what had been deemed South Africa’s greatest play was short-lived because of the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960.
But in a fitting tribute to the art form and the local talent the country boasts today, Nomvete says: “I think South African theater is of an outstanding caliber and more people should be coming into our country to watch our shows; King Kong is testament enough of how well professionals in the performing arts are doing their thing and they are doing it well.”
The Fugard Theatre’s King Kong, directed by Jonathan Munby, was also staged at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town before its Johannesburg outing.
“I do think that Mariam Makeba and Todd Matshikiza and the entire original creative team who may no longer be with us are smiling down from heaven and are proud of the steps we have taken and how we have pushed the story and the production forward and caused it to evolve. We are proudly and graciously carrying the torch they originally lit,” concludes Tembe.
The standing ovation the play received more than confirmed that. – Written by Rofhiwa Madzena