The rise and fall of flamboyant, ferocious Ezekiel Dlamini, a black South African boxer known as “King Kong” who was jailed for murder, inspired a 1959 musical whose black cast performed for multi-racial audiences, testing the apartheid system of that era. Now the musical that helped to propel the careers of singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela is back on the stage in South Africa.
“King Kong: Legend of a Boxer” highlights the jazz infused with indigenous influences that flourished in some black urban areas, particularly Johannesburg’s Sophiatown, in racially segregated South Africa in the 1950s, as well as the underworld of gangsters and bars known as shebeens accompanying the creative ferment. The backdrop, while not explicitly addressed in the play, is the white minority rule that systematically marginalized the country’s black majority.
The show, which ends a run at the Joburg Theatre on Sunday and returns to The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town on Dec. 12, is a cautionary tale. In 1957, Dlamini fatally stabbed girlfriend Maria Miya, an act that resonates in a country whose high rate of violent crime counts many women among its victims.
One theme in the musical is “the importance of understanding and owning your power but also taking responsibility for it,” said Nondumiso Tembe, a Los Angeles-based South African actor playing the role of Joyce, a host at a bar called Back o’ the Moon who becomes romantically entangled with the boxer. Tembe noted that the killing of women “has sort of become an epidemic in our society today.”
In a reminder of that scourge, President Jacob Zuma last week condemned the fatal shooting of eight women and girls, reportedly members of the same family, in a village in KwaZulu-Natal province and said curbing violence against women is a priority for his government. Police are investigating whether the killings were the result of a family feud or were linked to political rivalries that periodically turn violent in the region.
Some South African commentary on “King Kong” has recalled Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee athlete who was imprisoned for murdering girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
Dlamini was a gambler and brawler from a rural village who flouted conformity and gained a big following in Johannesburg, becoming South Africa’s “non-European” heavyweight champion. (Black and white boxers were not allowed to fight each other in those days.) An old photograph shows him bare-chested, wearing chains that he donned to show his humiliation after losing a fight.
Eventually, he “became involved with local gangsters and succumbed to bouts of drunkenness and with that came an increasingly violent and paranoid lifestyle,” the musical’s program says. He killed Miya after a quarrel, according to reports. Dlamini asked to be put to death after he was convicted, but was sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Soon after that, he drowned in a prison reservoir in what was believed to be a suicide.
A 1979 remake of “King Kong” got bad reviews and quickly collapsed.
In this year’s version, Dlamini is played by Andile Gumbi, who had the role of Simba in “The Lion King” on Broadway and elsewhere. Briton Jonathan Munby directs.
In the original show in South Africa, Makeba played Joyce, Dlamini’s lover, but was soon bound for bigger success in the United States. She died in 2008. Masekela, who was 19 when he performed in “King Kong,” said Saturday that he was canceling commitments in the near future because of prostate cancer.
The original show, a huge success in South Africa that also toured Britain, featured composer Todd Matshikiza and a mostly white management and production team. Nelson Mandela, an amateur boxer, attended the opening night of the musical that embodied the potential for multi-racial collaboration at a time when South Africa’s racist rule was staunchly enforced.
By skirting the injustices of apartheid, the original “King Kong” production dodged any move by authorities to shut it down. Similarly, the musical could have faced a crackdown if white actors had joined the all-black cast on stage, said Pat Williams, who wrote the original lyrics.
Williams, who lives in Britain, said a big difference between the 1959 and 2017 shows is that the current actors are professionals, while some in the old cast were inexperienced with theater but all too familiar with the grit and hardship of life in apartheid South Africa.
“It was their own lives they were putting on the stage,” she told The Associated Press. “The result was electric.”