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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Grand eland, springbok child: a work of space, humanity

space

BEAUTY under African umbrellas: An insight into Space photographed by John Hogg.

WHEN SOMETHING SO unutterably beautiful crosses your path, at first you feel awestruck into silence, and once you have caught your breath and gathered your energies, it takes time before you are capable of reflecting on the intensity and pull of that beauty. This is what you experience with Sifiso Kweyama’s Space, a celebration of humanity and the essence of godhead which also reflects tragically on the horrors and broken sacredness faced by the original inhabitants of this part of the world.

Something akin to Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Keeper of the Kumm (2016) an extrapolation of her coloured roots, or composer Peter Louis van Dijk’s Horizons (1995), performed most extraordinarily in South Africa earlier this month by the King’s Singers, Space embraces a tale of colour and identity, one which is also peppered by violence and displacement. But overall, it is a work so sensitively conceived and articulated, you feel the urge to open your eyes and soul wider than what your anatomy will allow, just to hold onto every gesture and visual rhyme you’re exposed to.

Featuring dancers associated with Jazzart, the work does the Cape Town-based dance company proud in the interjections of movement and poetry and how they sync with one another. But there is more – the integrity of design in this work, from sound to simply fabulous costumes, add to how it flows hither and yon against the aural backdrop of poetry in English and Afrikaans, about the loss of land and the horror of discrimination.

Having said that, it is Lewellyn Afrika that will grasp your eyes from the very outset of the work. Not only is he a beautiful persona onstage, who evokes the noble eland in his unconscious sense of potency and quiet magnificence, but he’s an extraordinary dancer, who reaches across the stage with gesture and bottled fire. As you watch the narrative sequence of events in the work unfold, you see Afrika as a cipher of gender potency as he confronts the maleness of the character danced by Shaun Oelf, and the more stereotypical reflections of the three women dancers, Refiloe Mogoje, Thabisa Dinga and Tracey September.

This work is a paean to coloured identity and how it reaches through the interstices of history and war to the San people. The thrust and flow of the choreography with costumes comprising muted hues and dance pants that splay and echo visual and performed values, it’s a piece you don’t want to end, even though the tale is far from happy or comfortable.

While the sound design in the work lacks subtlety and the words are gravelly and thick in a way that sometimes impedes their diction or clarity, the work as a whole is otherwise constructed with a powerful choreographic hand and beautiful cohesion between dancers. This is the kind of work that makes a festival such as Dance Umbrella sing. And the kind of audience experience that makes it very sad that the work occupies the platform for but two days. But it’s also the kind of work that makes everything seem a little lighter, wiser, more forgiving and a lot closer to perfection.

  • Space is choreographed by Sifiso Kweyama with directorial advice from Mdu Kweyama and features design by Max Richter and Radical Face (music), Khadija Tracey Heeger and Lewellyn Afrika (poems), Nkosinathi Sangweni (costumes) and David Hlatshwayo (lighting). It is performed by Lewellyn Afrika, Thabisa Dinga, Refiloe Mogoje, Shaun Oelf and Tracey September in the Wits Theatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.