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King Kong: the Wits connection


An idea achieved by pooling resources

King Kong, the first all-black South African musical show, opened in the Wits Great Hall on 2 February 1959. It was a huge hit with audiences and helped launch the careers of some of South Africa’s best-known musicians and singers.

The Great Hall was chosen as a venue because it was one of the few where multiracial audiences were permitted during that period of apartheid, and because of its size. Seating was supposed to be racially segregated but this didn’t work in practice, according to Bruce Murray’s book Wits: The ‘Open’ Years.

The venue was not the show’s only connection to Wits University. The production was led by Wits alumnus Harry Bloom (BA 1934, LLB 1937) and supported by businessman Clive Menell (honorary LLD 1996). Stanley “Spike” Glasser (BCom 1950) was the musical director. (He studied Economics at Wits but went on to study music in England.)

Co-sponsors were the Union of Southern African Artists and the African Medical Scholarship Trust Fund, chaired by Laurie Geffen (BSc 1958, BSc Hons 1959, MBBCh 1962). Murray writes that this sponsorship was “a final gesture of defiance before the ban on the further admission of black students to the Wits Medical School was enacted”.

The saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi recalled how Glasser met him and other musicians at Dorkay House and they worked on the score. “Glasser, a jolly guy, not pompous, was the musical director and Leon Gluckman was the director of the whole show.” (From Sophiatown Renaissance: A Reader, compiled by Professor Ntongela Masilela.)

The writer Lewis Nkosi suggested that “the resounding welcome … at Wits University Great Hall … was not so much for the jazz musical as a finished artistic product as it was applause for an idea which had been achieved by pooling together resources from both black and white artists in the face of impossible odds.” (BBC)

King Kong’s music and lyrics were by Todd Matshikiza and Pat Williams respectively. The jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela (honorary DLitt 2017) performed in the show at the age of 19. Nelson Mandela (honorary LLD 1991) was in the audience on opening night, along with many other influential people of Johannesburg.

Professor Njabulo Ndebele (honorary DLitt 2011) was there, too, aged 11. “We had driven all the way from Nigel in our fawn 1948 Chev, and returned there afterwards. The remarkable performance of that night is still vivid in my mind, testimony to the enduring power of art in the making of which nothing was spared to achieve the highest effect. It was testimony too, to the enduring impact of exposing young people to powerful formative experiences, which then live with them throughout their lives.”

According to South African History Online, “by early April, 37 performances had been made to a total of 40 000 audience members”. Eventually, around 200 000 people are said to have attended in South Africa. The musical, with a cast of 70, went on to Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth before returning to Johannesburg and then moving to London.

King Kong told the story of a real-life person, Ezekiel Dlamini, who came to Johannesburg from what was then Zululand to make a living. Known as King Kong, he became a gangster and boxer in Sophiatown, murdered his girlfriend, Joyce, and drowned in a dam soon after starting his sentence of hard labour.

Former Drum magazine editor Sylvester Stein described the musical as “nothing less than Drum set up on stage. Music, dance, sport, politics, crime, shebeens, sex, township life … the complete Drum cocktail.”

Nathan Mdledle starred as Dlamini and Miriam Makeba played Joyce. Makeba went into exile when the show went overseas and began her international career.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian (26 July 2017), Hilary Toffoli gives an idea of why the show was so popular: “In a country where the majority of the population was being kept down and restricted by draconian laws, King Kong’s effervescent celebration of life, love and muscle was like nothing we’d seen before. It was a gritty musical depiction of a place and era whose annihilation by the apartheid government four years previously would remain a haunting element of our troubled history.”

According to Peter Feldman in the South African Jewish Report, July 2017, Computicket founder Percy Tucker wrote: “It is impossible to overstate either the impact or the significance of King Kong in apartheid South Africa of the period. It gave dignity to the black population of the country and brought recognition of black talent. For white theatre-goers it was an eye-opener, and for the theatre itself, a triumphant vindication of the efforts to promote its development and widen its horizons.”

King Kong is back, now playing at the Joburg Theatre.