Reviving a South African Musical That Once Promised So Much

The resuscitation of “King Kong” is the work of Eric Abraham, a South African-born, London-based producer of theater and film (“Kolya,” “Ida”) who encountered the music by chance in the mid-1990s, and immediately decided to pursue the project for the Fugard Theater, which he founded.

“Somewhere I had heard about the myth of ‘King Kong’ the musical, and it just resonated,” Mr. Abraham said in an interview at his west London home. “The making of ‘King Kong’ reflected a kind of utopia in the midst of an utterly fragmented society. Having grown up in that society, this appealed strongly to me.”

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Andile Gumbi in the title role of a new production of the musical “King Kong.”

Credit
Jesse Kramer

“King Kong” is set in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown neighborhood, until its demolition in 1955 a multiracial cultural hub that bred a generation of writers and musicians. It tells the true story of a famous boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, nicknamed “King Kong” for his size and strength, whose downfall (caused partly by his jealousy over his girlfriend, Joyce, the owner of an informal nightclub) and untimely death provided, for many, a parable of lost chances and thwarted lives in apartheid South Africa.

Mr. Abraham had some experience of that himself. Working as a journalist in his early 20s, he was targeted by the South African secret service for reporting on police atrocities and torture, placed under house arrest, and eventually smuggled across the border to Botswana in 1977. For a long time he retained an ambivalent connection to his home country, but by the time he heard the “King Kong” music, he was actively looking for South African projects.

His path to a revival needed the kind of tenacity that Mr. Abraham has plenty of. (An attempt at a revival in 1979 folded after two shows.) “I like a challenge,” he said. “And who can resist Todd Matshikiza’s music and Pat Williams’s lyrics?”

Ms. Williams was 23 and a journalist for Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail newspaper when she was asked to write the lyrics for “King Kong” by her friends Clive and Irene Menell, who against all social strictures were friendly with Todd Matshikiza and his wife, Esme. Without their financial and practical support (among other things, Mr. Menell wrote the story line), Ms. Williams wrote in her recent memoir, “King Kong — Our Knot of…

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