Johannesburg - The revival of the most iconic musical in South African theatre arrived from Cape Town basking in the glow of warm reviews and packed houses, but King Kong’s cast are keeping on their toes as they face a tougher Joburg audience.
“There was an amazing response at our first preview on Tuesday,” said Andile Gumbi, the star of the show, which is on at the Joburg Theatre, this week.
“The response from younger people in the audience is interesting because the new version is more of a reimagining than a retelling.”
Only Sarafina! and The Lion King are as famous as 1959’s King Kong. Gumbi made his Broadway debut as Simba in The Lion King in 2004, before touring the world in the role.
After a stint on TV drama Isibaya, he’s playing Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini, the troubled heavyweight boxing star from KwaZulu-Natal who arrives in Soweto to make his fortune, but ends up in a gang and then in prison.
The jazz musical, with music by Todd Matshikiza and lyrics by Pat Williams, broke attendance records last time around. It toured the country for two years and was seen by more than 200 000 South Africans before a stint in London.
The male lead then was Nathan Mdledle.
A pioneering all-black cast featured mostly untrained actors and rising names in music that are now legendary – Caiphus Semenya, Sophie Mgcina, Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Thandi Klaasen and Miriam Makeba, who famously played the queen of the Back of the Moon shebeen.
“Most of the actors had not been in a theatre before,” recalled the sprightly 86-year-old Williams this week over the phone from London.
When asked by Matshikiza and producers Clive and Irene Menell to write the lyrics, she was working as a reporter at the Rand Daily Mail.
“They would get up at 5am and take crowded buses to work all day, and then they’d come to rehearsals and there’d be a bus to take them home at 1am … before getting up at 5am again.
"I was in Cape Town for the premiere of the new King Kong, and I looked at the programme and there are trained professionals all over the cast. Acting is now a day job,” said Williams.
“It’s three generations later. I don’t know what today’s audiences would make of what we did. Do they know what it’s like to carry a pass every day? It had to be made relevant.”
Gumbi says some of the most vivid responses from especially student audiences in the Joburg previews this week were to the character of Joyce, King Kong’s ill-fated girlfriend.
“There’s a lot more power to women in the new version,” said Gumbi.
“The rewritten Joyce doesn’t rely on a man to be happy. She says to him: ‘I’m not your woman, I’m Joyce.’ And the students were like, ‘Yaass!’.” he said.
Matshikiza’s widow, Esme, spoke to City Press from Cape Town. She took her daughter and two grandchildren to the opening.
“They were all very delighted,” she said.
“At first, it was a very emotional experience, but then I calmed down and loved watching it.
"This is a different generation with a different set of issues,” she said, commenting on how the violence in the new version has a different intensity today, in South Africa’s climate of “terrifying violence”.
She told City Press stories about her husband’s encounters with the more gentlemanly gangsters of the 1950s, when he was a reporter for Drum magazine and when he was arrested for drinking with a white man in Hillbrow together with Can Themba.
Shebeen queen Joyce (Miriam Makeba) dances with Popcorn. (Photo: Dan Poho)
When he arrived in the prison courtyard, a gangster called him over and warned him that another gangster intended to rape the famous jazz musician and protected him.
Matshikiza would draw on these encounters when writing the music for the original Tsotsi.
“We didn’t imagine it would be so big,” the chuckling Esme said over the phone.
“We were all surprised,” said Williams.
“Except Hugh [Masekela]. He said we can all see it’s brilliant, why are we surprised? It became more than a musical, it developed a mythology.”
Now Gumbi and the electrifying new cast are carrying the baton.
Will it reach 200 000 people? It wouldn’t be surprising. After its Joburg run, King Kong is heading back to Cape Town due to popular demand.
*King Kong is on at the Joburg Theatre until 8 October.
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