THE REAL KING KONG
The brawler who inspired the musical
Ezekiel Dhlamini was not of royal blood, although many hailed him as such and for notaltogether benign reasons. They called him King, mostly because of those he conquered and laid flat on their backs in his capacity as a professional and street boxer.
“King” was also shorthand for King Kong, the Hollywood picture about an extraordinary gorilla that wreaked havoc in urban America. The name was a fitting one for Dhlamini, who bestrode South Africa’s urban heights and, for a minute, reigned supreme.
It is 60 years since Dhlamini’s demise and 58 years since the musical’s exalted opening in Johannesburg, and South Africa’s tongues are aflame at the revival of “the first-ever black musical”. After opening in Cape Town, King Kong:
Legend of a Boxer — once billed as the “AllAfrican Jazz Opera” — is blasting out in Johannesburg, the city where King kicked butt.
Conceived in the mid-1950s, a period characterised by the systematic attempted erasure of African folks’ self-worth and concomitant push-back through artistic expressions ranging from jazz to activist journalism, sartorial elegance and nascent Africanist ideology channelled through the ANC Youth League, the musical is of and for its time. And perhaps ours, too.
After all, how far have we moved beyond the social challenges of the ’50s?
Dhlamini was as much a product of apartheid as he was an irritating nuisance to the authorities, not because he was ideologically oppositional but because he was the sort of outlaw black fellow brimful of the pride Africa’s dusky children were not supposed to possess. To wit, a “cheeky native”.
Another self-declared “cheeky native” was writer Nat Nakasa. In the winter issue of Drum magazine in 1959, Nakasa, jiving between ode and elegy, observed: “Ezekiel Dhlamini, that rugged, ever-unkempt giant with the iron muscles of a Durban rickshaw puller, is back in the limelight. Within two years a legend has emerged around the man who threw himself into a dam rather than face the grey sameness of prison life.”
The man Nakasa called “the ‘Spice Smasher’, the ‘King Marshal’, or Mandlenkosi Dhlamini if you want to be official” was born in 1921 in Vryheid. He attended a Catholic primary school for two years and could not abide by its strictures, so hoofed it, never to set foot in the classroom again. At 14 he went to work for a white family in Vryheid, performing the menial jobs an unschooled native “boy” was expected to. Then and now. He couldn’t abide that either, and once again beat it, this time to Durban.
“But Durban was too quiet for this tall Tarzan-youth,” Nakasa wrote. Dhlamini was soon on his way to what Nakasa called “wild, stabbing, over-populated Johannesburg”, leaving behind his parents and five younger siblings.
Dhlamini earned a living by gambling. He was arrested after a man was beaten to death in a betting argument, but was acquitted and, Nakasa wrote, “swaggered straight back into his old life”.
Stabbed his dame
Listless in the city, like a rolling stone, a complete unknown with no direction home, young Dhlamini frequented a training gym at the Bantu Men’s Social Club, with its hardhitting boys under the famous Willie “Baby Batter” Mbatha. He is said to have laughed at the sight of men fighting with “cushions ’round their fists” .
“Why don’t they use bare fists, these chaps?” he said. He told the boys he could lick them “all in a row, gloves or no gloves”.
“And when I’m done I’ll lick you too,” he taunted Mbatha.
Mbatha took the bait, donned gloves and in no time rammed enough two-fisted sledgehammers into “Tarzan boy” to put the braggart flat on his back.
Dhlamini promptly joined Mbatha’s stable of fighters and thus began his wild career in boxing, in which he knocked out just about everyone in front of him. He went on to become a South African heavyweight champion, beating Joe Foxy Mntambo to take the crown.
King found himself with no opponents and, bored, took to fist-fighting. When these bouts dried up he would occasionally show up on central Joburg’s busiest streets clad in his gown with the embroidered nicknames “King Marshall” and “Spice Smasher”, to exercise in public to the amazement and glee of shopping crowds in total thrall to the six-footed muscled species shadow-boxing on the pavement.
His life and career continued on that trajectory until Simon “Greb” Mthimkulu, a boxer 6.3kg lighter than King, broke his jaw and his reputation. Doctors advised him not to fight any more.
King’s biggest fight was with the violent demons in his soul. In 1956, working as a bouncer at Polly Centre Hall in Sophiatown, a jealous Dhlamini thought his dame, Maria Miya, was two-timing him and stabbed her to death.
The police found him with the murder weapon, which he refused to drop, provoking the trigger-happy cops to fire three bullets into him. Much to everyone’s disbelief, King survived. Upon his discharge from hospital, he was taken to the Fort (“Number 4”).
At his trial he begged the judge to give him the death sentence instead of making him serve time. A performer and spectacle man at heart, Dhlamini was terrified of jail, not for its hardship but for its daily mundanities. For him, life without fighting for the crowd was worse than death.
Nakasa bought the story that a terribly frustrated King drowned himself in a prison dam one wintry day in April, 1957.
Slum yards of Sophiatown
The original King Kong was a collaboration between writers Harry Bloom and Pat Williams, director Leon Gluckman, set designer Arthur Goldreich and musical director Stanley Glasser, infused with a riveting, street-sourced musical score by the only African in the production, Todd Matshikiza.
The music of Matshikiza — jazz scribe, composer and scion of the famous Queenstown musical family — transfused the show with urgent, resonantly complex strands of the black experience as lived in the slum yards of Sophiatown.
Songbird and activist Miriam Makeba played Joyce — based on the doomed Maria Miya — in the “opera”, opposite the Manhattan Brothers’ Nathan Mdledle in the lead.
The suggestion that Dhlamini took his own life used to render Makeba, who died in 2008, apoplectic. In an interview at her Honeydew home in 2003, she told me: “I never fell for that ruse. It’s a fable . . . a fable, baby.” Makeba makes this claim in her memoir,
Makeba: My Story, saying that the jazz opera was the true story of a great African boxer whose life was full of frustration, for the authorities would not let him travel overseas where his true competition was. This, she says, was because “some years before, another African champion Jake Tule (born Jacob Ntuli), undefeated at home, went to England where he killed the first man he fought”.
Scooped the rights
According to Makeba, “When Tule came back the authorities were upset. This black man kills a white, and his people treat him like a hero. They were not going to let that happen again. So, later, Dhlamini was not permitted to go abroad.”
About his suicide by drowning, she sounded even more indignant: “Everyone wants to know: how did this six-feet-four drown in a little pond of water . . . We all suspect foul play by the authorities. ”
For her, “it is from these suspicions that a white man, Mr Harry Bloom, writes the book to the jazz opera, King Kong”.
While her anger might have been justified, Mama Africa’s own version was shrouded in apocrypha. There’s no record of the former British Empire bantam and flyweight champion killing a white boxer.
That the revival of the jazz opera is finally a reality is a miracle. The 2017 version is directed by Eric Abraham and produced by Jonathan Munby. The revised libretto was penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson, while recent French Legion D’Honneur recipient Gregory Maqoma handles the choreography.
Nobody is telling how the producers scooped the rights. This was not the first attempt to revive the musical. For years the late columnist and playwright John Matshikiza, the only son of Todd, had tried and failed to revive his father’s legacy.
Two years ago, Todd’s friend, jazz and mbaqanga lightning-rod Ramapolo “Hugh” Masekela, was on the verge of sealing a longheld dream of reviving the musical with the Market Theatre. Again, silence. But now it has happened. King Kong:
Legend of a Boxer is on at the Joburg Theatre until October 8.
STRONG AS A LION Ezekiel Dlamini, the boxer on whom the musical ‘King Kong’ is based.
QUICKLY IN LOVE Miriam Makeba as Joyce, owner of the Back of the Moon shebeen, sings to King Kong (Nathan Mdledle). In the background is Slim (James Thompson) in the original production of ’King Kong’.