King Kong con­fined to his­tory

Mail & Guardian - - Theatre -

Set in Sophi­a­town, even as it was be­ing de­mol­ished, there was the spec­tre of the mount­ing dam­age of apartheid poli­cies to con­tend with. Slot­ted in be­tween this epochal event and oth­ers to fol­low, such as the Sharpeville mas­sacre and the Rivo­nia Trial, King Kong was in, and of it­self, a po­lit­i­cal act. Also, King Kong the man, the ul­ti­mate tragic fig­ure, had died a cou­ple of years be­fore.

With a swag­ger com­pa­ra­ble to that of Jack John­son, the first AfricanAmer­i­can heavy­weight champ, Ezekiel Dlamini was born in Vry­heid in 1921. He left his fa­ther’s house at the age of 14 and worked as a gar­dener in Dur­ban be­fore go­ing to Johannesburg as part of a tour­ing foot­ball team, and stayed.

Set­ting up shop as a pro­fes­sional gam­bler, Dlamini got into the sport of box­ing af­ter laugh­ing at the box­ers in a Jo’burg gym­na­sium. Trainer and former pro­fes­sional boxer Wil­liam “Baby Bat­ter” Mbatha de­cided to teach the young­ster a les­son by beat­ing him through his “cush­ions”, which is how Dlamini had de­ri­sively re­ferred to box­ing gloves. It was then that Dlamini de­cided to be­come a boxer.

Blessed with good nat­u­ral size and box­ing ta­lent, Dlamini was not averse to in­tim­i­dat­ing would-be op­po­nents and dis­tant chal­lengers, in one case tak­ing a train to Dur­ban so he could fight Sam Lang­ford, who had is­sued a boast about beat­ing the boxer any­time, any­where. When Dlamini con­fronted the man at his place of work, a friend of Lang­ford’s in­ter­vened, sav­ing Lang­ford’s skin.

Dlamini’s life, it seemed, was more colour­ful out­side the ring than it was in it. It is a fact brought to life by this mu­si­cal, which loses some­thing of its essence when it is trans­formed into a con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tive. King Kong looks good on pa­per and, in­deed, to the eye. Andile Gumbi and Non­du­miso Tembe are charis­matic enough as the re­spec­tive leads King Kong and Joyce.

Gumbi, aes­thet­i­cally, evokes the lean physique of the young, “pretty” cham­pion Cas­sius Clay, as op­posed to a fig­ure con­gru­ous with the name King Kong. The cos­tumes, styled to evoke the 1950s, are mostly crisp and fresh, deck­ing the likes of Pe­tal (Ler­ato Mve­lase) in suave vin­tage garbs that would be the envy of any mod­ern fash­ion­ista.

The chore­og­ra­phy also (han­dled by Gre­gory Maqoma) is en­ter­tain­ing and a throwback with­out be­ing over the top. The box­ing ring fight scenes are brief, cre­atively lit and in­ven­tively struc­tured. The band is tight, but the mu­sic some­times seems like a run­away freight train; at once part of this mu­si­cal but, at the same time, par­al­lel to ev­ery­thing that is go­ing on on-stage.

It is a strange in­con­gruity, one that, at times, cre­ates the sen­sa­tion that the cast is at odds with the band or drown­ing in its son­ics. There is sim­ply not enough in the form of timeously de­ployed dy­nam­ics that makes the mu­sic an en­hance­ment to the drama.

Hav­ing said that, the en­sem­ble voices in this pro­duc­tion make a strong im­pres­sion, which brings me to another point about the story. For much of it, the sub­plots and sup­port­ing cast pro­pel the story for­wards dur­ing its lulls, of which there are sev­eral. Mve­lase and Ntando Ra­p­atla (Miriam), for ex­am­ple, re­spec­tively play po­ten­tial love in­ter­ests to King Kong and his trainer Jack (Tshamano Sebe). Miriam also spends much of her time re­ject­ing Jack’s ad­vances un­til he “wears her out”.

Per­haps it is a func­tion of the ac­tual story and their roles as sup­port­ing ac­tors that their re­la­tion­ships de­velop at a more or­ganic, be­liev­able pace. In the case of our leads’ af­fair, King Kong and Joyce fall head over heels dur­ing the course of one song, scup­per­ing any au­di­ence con­nec­tion to their love sce­nario. By con­trast, Miriam and Pe­tal wait in the wings, mak­ing their dou­ble wed­ding a sweet emo­tional tri­umph and, in some ways, steal­ing the show from the wings.

This raises another ques­tion: What does it mean to in­dulge in the sto­ry­line of King Kong in 21stcen­tury South Africa? At its essence, it is the story of a boxer (no doubt a charis­matic hero in the cul­tural mi­lieu that his star­dom emerged from) who mur­ders a woman who will not wait for him.

In 1959 South Africa, forced to par­tic­i­pate in a racially seg­re­gated sport and quickly climb­ing to its ceil­ing, King Kong quickly be­came a folk hero. A 2006 ac­count of his life by Deon Pot­gi­eter tells the story of King Kong run­ning down Mar­shall Street car­ry­ing dumb­bells, kids trail­ing af­ter him, earn­ing him the nick­name King Mar­shall. King Kong, like Joe Louis was to the United States dur­ing World War II, was black South Africa’s wartime hero in a time when the op­tions were lim­ited.

But King Kong is a tragic hero, a brute who kills his part­ner be­cause she moves on while he is in jail, and spurns him af­ter his re­lease and sub­se­quent match loss to a mid­dleweight boxer.

The struc­ture of the story does lit­tle to con­tex­tu­alise Joyce’s ac­tions in a man­ner that sees them out­side the am­bit of vil­lainy. Women like her were cas­ti­gated in a par­tic­u­lar time and place. These days, the au­di­ence ex­pects them to have agency. Within the con­text of the story, this is hardly de­vel­oped. When, in the sec­ond act, Tembe sings Funny How Smart I Can Be and Still Be a Fool, about Joyce’s os­cil­lat­ing love af­fairs, it is, per­haps sig­nif­i­cant that a man in the au­di­ence felt com­pelled to shout: “No, you’re not, baby. You’re not.”

Some of to­day’s cur­rent mores should have been trans­ferred to the stag­ing and sto­ry­line in one way or the other.

This is not to call for a som­bre mu­si­cal but to point out that its cur­rent com­bi­na­tion of en­ter­tain­ment and na­tional nos­tal­gia is a lit­tle so­cially anachro­nis­tic. King Kong re­mains what is it meant to be, a hit mu­si­cal of an ac­ci­den­tal hero re­vised for its en­dur­ing place in the na­tional mythol­ogy.

So, although King Kong was a hero in his day, he falls short to­day, singing, in his swansong: “I killed my love to prove my strength to another man.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.