When I first heard that The Fugard Theatre was holding auditions for King Kong, I immediately thought of a giant gorilla climbing up the Empire State Building. Being the wrong colour (which is mostly the case for me in life in general) I didn’t receive the casting brief and remained ignorant for a few more days before embarrassing myself by asking someone how they thought they would deal with the special effects. Strangely enough, on mentioning the show to my non-theatrical friends, they admit to imagining the same thing. In addition to this, they don’t believe me when I tell them it’s about the “legend of a boxer”. This, makes me feel both relieved that I am not alone, and sad that this spectacular musical is so poorly known.
King Kong is South Africa’s first original musical, premiering in 1959 at the Wits Great Hall. It is said that our beloved Madiba was in attendance and the show was sold out within 10 days. From here the show toured locally before heading to London for a West End run and making some history for South African theatre. Over half a century later, and it has finally returned home to Johannesburg (albeit produced by a Capetownian theatre).
Bringing this iconic musical back to life is a triumph for The Fugard Theatre. They continue to produce great work and this, in my opinion, is their greatest achievement so far. Big musicals in South Africa have been dominated by the international market for as long as I can remember. Despite my snide comment about being a whitey, castings for musicals have been terribly swayed towards primarily white casts for far too long. Take, for example Sound of Music. I don’t know any Austrian-Africans, do you? We were cheeky enough to sneak in Africa’s first (yes, there have been others elsewhere) black Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. Catering to a largely white musical theatre audience has meant that established producers have enjoyed bringing in international “Western” musicals. This year with Calling Me Home starting its journey as a new South African musical, and King Kong being reimagined for a modern audience, I hope we see the dawning of a new age of South African musical theatre. Next year, we also see The Colour Purple making an entrance to the scene. It’s exciting.
I only have four comments on this show, beyond that it was amazing and that everyone needs to see it. Firstly, this is the first time that I found a Fugard show’s lighting a little bit too dark. I often found myself squinting at faces in shadows. That, I admit, was probably Tim Mitchell’s intention. Secondly, and maybe this is because I was watching an unusual combination of cast, but I thought the show could have had a bit more pace. Next, I have a shout out to Gregory Maqoma for some sensational choreography. I LOVED it! And finally, a hearty congratulation to Edith Plaatjies who I saw play the role of Joyce (originally portrayed by Miriam Makeba) instead of Nondumiso Tembe. Although I would like to see the show again to see Tembe in action, Plaatjies was phenomenal; understated, but sassy and with a powerhouse voice.
King Kong is a must see. Joburg, wake up and fill Joburg Theatre before this show ends on the 8th of October.