King Kong cast. Picture: Daniel Rutland Manners

Another page in South African theatre’s history books will be written when one of the country’s first black jazz musicals, King Kong, opens tonight at the Joburg Theatre. 

The musical is set to dazzle Johannesburg audiences from this week until October 8, on the back of a successful run in Cape Town.

King Kong, a cautionary tale at its crux,  celebrates the golden era of music and dance that was Sophiatown, through the telling of the life and times of Vryheid-born boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who was respected and feared in the town.

While the original production boasted individuals who would become part South Africa’s music and theatre history in its cast in 1959 – the likes of Gwigwi Mrwebi, Hugh Masekela  and Miriam Makeba as Joyce, to name a few – the re-staging  of the play, as commissioned by the Fugard Theatre, contains a healthy mixture of established thespians and some relatively new faces.

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Its appeal, however, is never lost even as the play gets a new lease of life through the eyes of British director Jonathan Munby and  associate director Mdu Kweyama, who worked within a collective to maintain the balance of preserving the work, but also crafted it to appeal to 21st century audiences.  

 Kweyama, an established theatre practitioner, explained to Tonight that for him, getting involved with the production was a no-brainer.

“I was approached by the Fugard and, luckily, I’d studied King Kong at varsity, so I knew about it.  I couldn’t not say yes to the remake decades later, because of its history. I wanted to see how we could redo this in the 21st century and still ensure that it’s still relevant to audiences that saw it then and those that will see it now,” Kweyama said.

He explained that this was achieved by bringing in young actors into an old script with old songs, with their energy providing the drive to make it newer. 

Its other elements, such as the choreography of Gregory Maqoma, the reworked music under musical directors Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Lucwaba, the script and staging that also brings in a feel of the now, while the language and overarching narrative remain largely the same as they did 58 years ago.

King Kong cast. Picture: Jesse Kate Kramer

Kweyama added that in terms of casting, it was vital for them to cast actors who could sing, as opposed to musicians who could act. 

“We needed people who could tell the story as truthfully as possible. So our cast needed to be able to act, sing and dance,” he explained.

Kweyama added that the production struggled to find someone to portray Joyce, who is now played by Durban-born, US-based Nondumiso Tembe.

Speaking about the role, Tembe, who is becoming a household name on television after taking on roles such as Miss Mya on Generations and the Creole maid Mavis on True Blood, said this was one of the most challenging roles she’s had to take on yet.

“ For me, this has been one of the most challenging roles of my career. It’s one of my boldest and bravest performances and I am very proud of the performance that I have been able to craft as Joyce. 

“I’ve had a wonderful creative team that’s been unbelievably supportive and they’ve helped and guided me through that journey.

“Every night on that stage I celebrate uMam’ Miriam Makeba and her extraordinary legacy but I’ve also worked to make this role my own, which is really important to me,” Tembe said.

With her being based in the US, she explained that it was important for her to get involved in local productions frequently, in order to keep herself firmly rooted in South Africa as well.

“I make a very conscious decision to work in South Africa once every year or two years. So when the right project comes along, it’s magic,” she said.

The role of Joyce also deals with the issue of femicide, because she is murdered by King Kong in the production. Tembe said, for her, playing Joyce with a bit more depth was important, because the role sheds light on the issue that remains a social epidemic today. 

Tembe  revealed that in order to accurately deal with the issue, a decision was taken by the production’s directing and writing teams to write into existence a scene that deals with femicide. She and her co-star Andile Gumbi had hours to work the scene before performing it for the first time.

If the reviews of the Cape Town shows are anything to go by, the 70-strong cast seems to have put together a world-class production that showcases South African theatre at its very best. Kweyama added that, for them, that was the point. “If people all over the world can remake and perform greats such as Shakespeare, why shouldn’t not we bring the stories of Gibson Kente, for instance, back to life?”

As the production gets ready to showcase what will possibly be another brilliant run in Johannesburg, all that remains to be seen is just how many more theatres in the world will be begging to showcase this proudly South African classic.

* King Kong opens at the Mandela Theatre’s Joburg Theatre at 8pm tonight. Tickets: R190-R370 on webtickets or at the theatre. Until October 8. Visit www.joburgtheatre.com/king-kong/ for further details.

Images: Daniel Rutland Manners 

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