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King Kong and its Jewish connections

  • the big swing
When hit musical King Kong was originally performed at His Majesty’s Theatre in Johannesburg’s city centre in 1959, mixed audiences were a rarity. Among others, Jewish people would dress up to go to watch exceptional performances at this theatre – which has long since been destroyed.
by PETER FELDMAN | Jul 27, 2017

And more than that, a number of Jewish people were involved in putting on King Kong at the time. These included ANC stalwart and political icon, Arthur Goldreich, and celebrated director Leon Gluckman.

It is now having a dramatic revival in South Africa after an absence of 38 years.

It was last staged at Johannesburg's His Majesty's Theatre in April 1979 and was an entirely new production directed by an American, Joe Walker, who rewrote the book, and changed the story and music. It was a colossal flop.

Goldreich, an architect and visual designer who was arrested during the apartheid clampdown, and later went into exile where he died in 2011, was the original decor and costume designer for the production.

The musical, which helped to launch the careers of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, has had strong Jewish links through the years. It is being staged at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town and is due to reach Johannesburg audiences in September.

The original novel, written by Harry Bloom, from a synopsis by Clive and Irene Menell, was transformed into a jazz opera, celebrating township life and revolving around the legendary Sophiatown boxer and gangster Ezekiel Dlamini, known as King Kong.

His tragic story was brilliantly translated to the stage and became an international hit, playing first in South Africa to 200 000 multiracial audiences and then to London's West End.

Pat Williams wrote the lyrics and musician and composer Todd Matshikiza wrote the exuberant score. The musical director was Stan Glasser, who is also reputed to have contributed to the musical score but, according to a source, this aspect became a contentious issue with the Matshikiza family, which held the production back.

In his book, Just the Ticket, the legendary Percy Tucker, founder of Computicket, who attended the opening night at Wits Great Hall in 1959, 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."

At the time, Leon Gluckman, a brilliant actor and director, shared his strong belief with another Jewish theatre icon, producer/director Ian Bernhardt, that blacks and whites had much to give to each other, and the idea for an all-black King Kong was born.

In February 1959, a company called African Musical Theatre leaped into an exciting new era with the premiere of King Kong at the Wits Great Hall. It had an all-black cast, including Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers - and an all-Jewish backstage crew.

Two decades later it was staged at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End. It is ironical to note that three days after Gluckman's death, Parliament passed an Act bringing about the total desegregation of theatres in South Africa - the issue that he had championed for so long in the true spirit of so many Jewish liberal thinkers in South Africa.

The new production, directed by Jonathan Munby, has a revised book with additional lyrics by William Nicholson. It boasts a proudly South African cast brimming with talent.

Daniel Galloway, executive director of the Fugard Theatre, is thrilled that after all these years the musical was being staged in South Africa for a whole new generation.

"It will showcase the best in South African talent. The original united audiences of all colours, launched careers and put South Africa firmly on the international map. We are excited to be recreating the 'Back of the Moon shebeen and the vibe around it."

Theatre owner and producer Daphne Kuhn, commenting on the "remarkable" contribution by the Jewish community to theatre in South Africa said: "There would not be an entertainment industry were it not for the Jews. It is said that theatre and the Jews go together like bagels and lax - or kichel and herring! 

“It holds true to this day - even though there has been an enormous shift in our audiences, and the genres and themes preferred for works presented today and yesteryear - to cater for all in our ever-changing political and cultural environment.

“As a minority group, our artistic contribution has been disproportionately high and most significant in the development of South African theatre. Those in the industry have lent their expertise and artistic excellence to the continuing growth of theatre and its South African identity."

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