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’

Cape Times - - FRONT PAGE -

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.kingk­ingstage­mu­si­ or call 021 461 4554.


SPIR­ITED: Pat Wil­liams.

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