Rise and fall (and revival) of SA’s King Kong show
New book aims to ‘set the record straight’ about heroes and true impetus behind smash-hit musical
KING KONG: Our knot of time and music
At the age of 85, Pat Williams is one of the last survivors of King Kong, the African jazz opera that became a smash hit in 1959 and SA’s most popular musical of all time.
As a young journalist on the Rand Daily Mail, she had the good fortune to contribute to the lyrics to the production.
Her book is a collection of anecdotes, personal memories and quotes from other sources. It is released to coincide with the show’s restaging, directed by Jonathan Munby and produced by Eric Abraham, founder of the Athol Fugard Theatre.
The book was written on Abraham’s suggestion to "set the record straight" as the real heroes of the musical have not been sufficiently recognised.
King Kong All African Jazz Opera was based on the story of Ezekiel Dhlamini (also known as King Kong), the South African black heavyweight champion who was convicted for the jealous murder of his mistress and drowned himself in a prison dam in April 1957.
The story expressed the unbreakable spirit of Johannesburg’s people in the 1950s and enacted the music and vibrant culture of township life. It was a pioneer of racial integration during the cruelty, restriction and humiliation of the apartheid era.
The musical was made possible by Clive and Irene Menell. At Clive’s memorial, Nelson Mandela observed: "Clive helped guide SA through a period of economic, political and social transition."
The former Anglovaal deputy chairman and his wife hosted and initiated a creative team to produce the story of King Kong.
At the centre of the production was musician, writer and composer Todd Matshikiza. He had known King Kong and covered his trial for Drum magazine. Matshikiza was joined by set designer Arthur Goldreich, Leon Gluckman as stage director, Ian Bernhardt as impresario, scriptwriter Harry Bloom, choreographer Arnold Dover and Robert Loder, who managed the fundraising.
TODD WOULD SPEAK RESENTFULLY OF THE HEAVY WHITE HAND THAT HAD DESCENDED ON HIS MUSIC.
"It was a powerful wave of love," writes Williams, adding it was "the first time black and white had worked openly together on a project".
The cream of Johannesburg musicians was pulled together: The Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba and her Skylarks (including Letta Mbulu and Abigail Khubeka), The Trevor Huddleston Jazz Band members (Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa), musicians from the Union of South African Artists (Gwigwi Mrwebi, Mackay Davashe and Kippie Moeketsi) and Dorkay House players.
King Kong All African Jazz Opera opened at the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand on February 2 1959. Mandela, a keen boxer, was there with his then wife Winnie. They ended up seeing the show four times.
The opening lyrics to King Kong’s hit song, Back of the Moon, about the famous Sophiatown shebeen, "gets so close to the real thing one can almost smell the shebeen – the cold sweat, the stench of stale liquor", wrote Bloke Modisane in Drum.
The lyrics Williams penned are timeless and a sign of the rapport that developed between her and Matshikiza.
"Todd was unusual and extraordinary, possessed enormous intelligence and generosity of spirit, and inspired affection and admiration … music poured from him, tumbling out of him like water," she writes.
Matshikiza contributed the isiXhosa lyrics.
"I loved his music: who wouldn’t, it is fantastic? But we didn’t discuss the lyrics at all. I would always go away and write what was in my mind and he would say, ‘Yes Patty, that is great’," Williams writes.
This working harmony in a society that was so stifling led to a new level of experience and understanding for Williams. She uses the African idiom of "a knot of time" to describe this: "When people, place, the moment itself, and other ingredients and forces one isn’t even aware of, come together as if in a chemical eruption, and produce a phenomenon of a dimension and consequence far beyond what was originally conceived."
After the opening run of the production, seen by 65,000 people in about 100 performances in SA’s four main cities, Williams left her marriage and SA. She journeyed up Africa to London and joined the recently launched Sunday Telegraph.
In the years after King Kong was staged, a wave of South African exiles arrived in London and by February 1961 the show’s entire cast was living in the city. A run at the Princess Theatre, organised by Jack Hylton and Lord Derby, was staged.
"The audience seemed to contain every South African in London. [They were] dancing in the streets outside, imitating the moves of the kwela or patha-patha," she writes.
However, for Matshikiza and Williams the experience morphed into disappointment as they lost control of the production they had lovingly crafted.
"We felt ignored, our work thoughtlessly and peremptorily brushed aside," she writes. "Over the years Todd would repeatedly speak resentfully of the heavy white hand that had descended on his music."
King Kong ground to a halt at the Princess Alice Theatre at the end of 1961.
The opportunity it had provided for the musicians, actors and dancers was nothing short of a miracle.
Yet the irony, Williams notes, is that "Ezekiel Dhlamini, who could never fulfil his dream of coming to London, was enabling our cast, players and musicians to live out that which had been utterly beyond his reach".
Williams became director of the College of Storytellers for 10 years and a practising psychotherapist. She still teaches workshops in Britain called How to Tell Stories that Heal.
"If a story contains a pattern which overrides a less adaptive pattern in the brain and you tell it in the right way you can actually influence somebody and affect them for the better without invading their privacies. It is quite astonishing," she writes.
"And King Kong was exactly that. It brought us together in a nonpolitical way for the first time publicly … and it goes on and on."
• Williams will be at Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre for the opening night of the 21st evolution of King Kong — The Musical and the launch of her book.