Pat Williams on King Kong
‘King Kong’ has been playing to rave reviews at the Fugard. Original lyricist Pat Williams speaks to ORIELLE BERRY about writing the story behind the original musical in her memoir ‘King Kong – Our Knot of Time and Music’
IT ALL started with Johannesburg couple Clive and Irene Menell and Drum magazine journalist Todd Matshikiza. Matshikiza had covered the story of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini and was also renowned as a highly talented musician and composer.
The Menells had no experience of musicals, but plenty of verve and creativity, and between the three of them, following long discussions deep into the night, they decided to create King Kong.
Pat Williams describes how, as the neighbour of the Menells, and a journalist at the Rand Daily Mail, she was co-opted to write the lyrics and how the Menells brought them all together, along with set designer (and anti-apartheid activist) Arthur Goldreich.
“They had already been meeting for two or three weeks, and thought of me to write the lyrics because they knew the weekly satirical verses I wrote in the Rand Daily Mail, for which I was a reporter and deputy film and theatre critic.”
Williams recalls in the book how soon the team was utterly absorbed in visualising this landmark story about the boxer: “a true and ultimately tragic story, so familiar to us that no further explanation was needed. The function of the (first) scene, and the song in it, was to establish King Kong as star of the boxing ring, and his popularity among the people in the town.”
Williams was 23 years old at the time and recalls in the book the strong criticism she had, from both friends and family, for socialising and working with people “across the colour bar” during the height of the apartheid era. She writes “… between us we broke through insane and cruel restrictions, both of law and convention, which in South Africa up until that point had kept people of different races apart, and which had seemed as rigid as iron, as unreachable as say, the prison on Robben Island. Inconceivable, unthinkable – but somehow it happened…”
Williams, now in her 80s, returned to South Africa almost 60 years later, for the recent launch of the new King Kong and recalls warmly how three generations of her family sat in the star-struck audience to enjoy, what she referred to, as a wonderful tribute and superb reinvention of the original King Kong.
Now living in the UK, where she lives half the year in London and the other half on the Scottish Island of Arran, she says she wrote the book as her response to the new production. “I feel a bit like the keeper of the memories,” she remembers the heady days when the original story took place.
On reading Williams’s book, Athol Fugard, who, at around the same time that King Kong came together, was setting up a multi-racial theatre in Johannesburg and crafting dramatic roles and narratives for black actors, has referred to it as “an extraordinary memoir of the first ever South African musical, which has since acquired mythical proportions”.
She says: “When I first spoke to producer Eric Abraham, he said I shouldn’t write a documentary. But I certainly could do a memoir – so I kind of wrote a memoir and a documentary and threaded my own story.”
The book comes across as a frank and moving record of life in South Africa for the creatives as well as the extraordinary tours overseas, for the cast and the unique situations that all those involved found themselves in. Williams recalls: “I also wanted it to be a social document. From a very small child I couldn’t understand it (apartheid) – I had lack of understanding of it all.”
There are many fascinating accounts which detail the difficulties that were rife in the logistics of producing a show of this nature. For example, she relates how tricky it was, almost impossible, given the restrictive laws and the time limits, of her being able to meet with Matshikiza to work on the lyrics.
“People often ask songwriters which comes first, the music or the words. In our case, there was no choice, because it was hard for Todd and me to meet, given the limitations apartheid imposed, plus we both had jobs, which made the ‘when’ difficult too.” Thus, before the days of advanced technology, writes Williams, an idea was devised by Clive Menell in which her songs were recorded on to the bulky tapes of the times so that Matshikiza could listen to them as he sat at a piano. Lyrics were tried out in the car… there were meetings in a cafe in Fordburg… eventually the whole mammoth show came together triumphantly.
Williams says the reinvention of the original groundbreaking musical brings back a multitude of memories. “It was indeed a privilege in those days to work with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.”
Of the reincarnation of the legendary show she says: “I was thinking of it after seeing it on opening night, and one could say, ‘same, same but different’. One couldn’t have put it on now, the way you had then.”
She applauds the new cast and production team: “They were so great about what we had done and achieved and so wanted to honour what we had done and speak to a new generation
“What’s extraordinary was that when we did it my son was not quite 2 years old – now he is in his 60s and was sitting in the audience with his two daughters.”
In her honest and often painful memories, she describes a difficult marriage and just weeks before the original show her “bleak time” as she planned to leave her marriage. She remarried in her sixties and today is content and remains extremely active and involved in her family and her work. She says: “My life has gone on from King Kong. I continue to write and have penned novels under a pseudonym” (which she was not willing to reveal).
“I decided in my late 50s that if I lived till then, I had to continue to work up to my 90s. In her epilogue to the recently published book, Williams fondly pays tribute to her close associates and friends, from decades ago.
She says, “when Ezekiel Dlamini (King Kong) threw himself into the dam on the prison farm and drowned… in 1957, he passed from life into legend, and that is where he still exists today.”
King Kong: Legend of a Boxer can be seen at The Fugard Theatre until September 2 and will move to Joburg Theatre on September 8.
For more details go to www.kingkingstagemusical.com or call 021 461 4554.
SPIRITED: Pat Williams.