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The King Kong Of Musicals



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.”

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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.

From left to right: Nondumiso Tembe, Joel Zuma, Sanda Shandu, Barileng Malebye and Ben Kgosimore star in King Kong. (Photo by Daniel Rutland Manners)

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.

READ MORE: Three Women, Three Wives, One True Story

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.”

Nondumiso Tembe. (Photo by Daniel Rutland Manners)

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.

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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.”

Sne Dladla (left) and Lerato Mvelase in King Kong. (Photo by Jesse Kramer)

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


Quote Of The Day



We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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Quote Of The Day



“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’



Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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