"King Kong, bigger than Cape Town" : a history of a South African musical




Fleming, Tyler

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This dissertation analyzes the South African musical, King Kong, and its resounding impact on South African society throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. A “jazz opera” based on the life of a local African boxer (and not the overgrown gorilla from American cinema), King Kong featured an African composer and all-black cast, including many of the most prominent local musicians and singers of the era. The rest of the play’s management, including director, music director, lyricist, writer and choreographer, were overwhelmingly white South Africans. This inter-racial collaboration was truly groundbreaking in a nation where apartheid was officially enacted a little over a decade prior to King Kong’s 1959 debut. Relatively apolitical in its message, King Kong proved accessible to South African audiences regardless of race or background, and became overwhelmingly lauded as an endeavor that all of the country could enjoy and cherish. The musical successfully toured South Africa’s major metropolises, often to sold-out crowds. Its domestic success later spurred a tour of Britain in 1961, making it the first major South African theatrical production to be staged abroad. Due to the multi-racial efforts behind King Kong, its success and the high quality of its performers, the musical initiated a new era in South African music and theatre for decades to come.

Despite being based around King Kong, this dissertation contextualizes the production, as it uses King Kong’s creation, development and legacies to further analyze larger themes within South African and global histories. Each chapter, as a result, examines the evolution of the musical from the life story of the boxer from which the play is based, the musical’s making and tour of South Africa, the play’s 1961 tour of the United Kingdom, the experiences of the black casts in exile, and the failure of the play’s 1979 remake. By examining the play, its cast, and their collective legacies both in South Africa and further afield, this project complicates our understanding of the Black Atlantic framework by infusing Africans as active participants in these transnational discussions.




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