Knocked out by King Kong

king-kong

TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.
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For Karabo, and all Karabos

inhershoes

MY sisters, myself: Nommangaliso Tebeka, Joyce Hopane and Nomasonto Radebe. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

TAKE AN AUDIENCE of 72. Divide them in two and range them facing one another across the stage. Strip them of their ability to sit in the auditorium because every seat in the space has been marked with the name of a woman, who is both present and absent because of this. This is the potent and ghostly start to Luyanda Sidiya’s new piece, In Her Shoes, a contemplation of women in a time of moral despair.

Manipulating the space and the audience, Sidiya boldly sets the tone for something utterly extraordinary; the work starts with a frightening level of aplomb and virtual perfection that makes you want to leave as soon as you’ve seen it because it feels so complete. The narrative is so violent yet so tightly told, the gestures so articulate and the element of fear so well understood and expressed that it feels as though you’ve sampled an elegant sufficiency, peppered as it is with primal screams and troubling potency.

Karabo Mokoena was just 22 when she tragically emerged on South Africa’s headlines. She was another desperately sad casualty in the domestic scourge against women that continues to leave this country reeling. Raped and murdered, the remains of this beautiful young student were burnt so badly, they were difficult to recognise. And the unfolding horror of the story revealed that the man who had perpetrated the crime had been her boyfriend. Much of the first part of In Her Shoes touches the life and values of Karabo and all the Karabos out there.

You weep for her. For her mother, for her sister, for what she represented to a South African community. But you cannot leave the theatre at that time. Firstly, because, you’re seated up there on the stage. And secondly, because this bit of perfection in dance and staging, wordless narrative and lighting, is but the prologue, and the work unfolds further from that point.

Sadly, this is, in many ways, its undoing: the focus is compromised and a story line is cast around a rural set of values, posing moral options for a young woman which is overshadowed and underplayed by sound that is amplified to such a tremendous extent that you feel the bones in your head beginning to shiver against one another. You feel your teeth take the sound’s frequency vibrate horribly and you fear your life blood may burst out in great spasms and arcs in protest.

You cannot help but wonder what this work would have been like in the absence of this immense, all-encompassing noise. While Sidiya’s use of the spoken voice in this piece diminishes its strength as a dance work, and pushes it into a literalness which overrides his extraordinarily fine choreography, some of the texts are magnificent, but still, the sound bears down on you, like an immense cloud, which blocks your ability to see these beautiful dancers as they should be seen.

  • In Her Shoes is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Billy Monama (musical director), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka (texts) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Joyce Hopane, Nomasonto Radebe, Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka, and a music ensemble comprising Phosho Lebese and Sibusiso Sibanyoni at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until August 13. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.