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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


XABA, Andile. King Kong adapatations (1959-2017): Transversing culture and society. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.1, pp.16-37. ISSN 2224-7912.

The adaptation of the King Kong musical in 2017 could not have been done without the memory of the original musical since the original had considerable cultural resonance when it was performed in 1959. King Kong is one of the most significant productions in the history of South African theatre. When the production was first staged in 1959, it involved 72 musicians and dancers and it aimed to showcase the vibrancy of an emerging urban black culture to primarily white audiences. Other factors have also contributed to King Kong being an important production in the history of South African theatre. For example, it was also one of the first productions which transgressed apartheid era strictures by showing collaboration between Africans and whites. Its principal actors went on to achieve international acclaim and the musical was hugely successful when it was performed in London. These factors all contributed to the way in which the musical was adapted in 2017. In discussing the adaptation, I consider that the musical has undergone various permutations, namely an original story outline and piano-based composition written by Pat Williams and Todd Matshikiza respectively (version number one) as well as the expansion of this script by Harry Bloom and the orchestration of the music (version number two). Furthermore, a third version of the musical was written for performance in England, which became known in published form as King Kong. The African jazz opera. It is important to note that King Kong had only been performed as a full production in South Africa in 1959 and in 2017, yet in the intervening years, the musical was part of the public consciousness. In this article, I argue that the memories of the original production, including the prevailing sociopolitical conditions of 1959, cannot be divorced from the later version of the musical. Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Pat Williams all have written autobiographies in which they relate their involvement in the original King Kong production. Firstly, I will discuss how the original participants in the musical have contributed to building a considerable legacy for the musical. Both versions of the musical are then compared to outline how the past reverberates in the new adaptation, particularly in the role of the leading female character, Joyce. I wish to demonstrate that memories of the 1959 version were prevalent in the 2017 production. Marvin Carlson sees the implied as well as intertextual links between past and current theatrical texts as analogous to the presence of ghosts of the previous production. Furthermore, the adaptation is explored by analysing the production as a written text as well as the performance of the text and explores the way translation (of culture and specifically words) played an important role in the original production itself. The structure of the production is an important factor when discussing the 2017 adaptation. Notably, the "original" King Kong (1959) was written as a retroversion, in which three township "washer women" and a male resident recount the story of the great boxer, King Kong, who ignited the township with his boxing prowess. The boxer fell in love with Joyce, who owned a shebeen called "Back of the Moon" but was also the girlfriend of Lucky, a feared gangster. Through Lucky's machinations, King Kong loses a crucial match, which is the beginning of his descent into lawlessness. King Kong is arrested and sent to prison. When he returns from jail he sees that Joyce has reunited with Lucky and he kills her. During his trial for Joyce's murder King Kong begs the judge to sentence him to death - a plea which is denied. Ultimately, while working as part of a prisoner work gang, King Kong dies, apparently due to suicide. The first two versions of the production present the character as a victim of the apartheid justice system. The reworking of the musical for its London staging kept the retrospective nature of the dramatic narrative but added some sequences of African dance - leading to much praise by critics in London when the musical was performed in 1961. This article also discusses the complexity of translating a text from one cultural context to another. The local producers of the musical (in 1961) wanted to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the Johannesburg version. However, the English producer demanded that a structure be imposed on the musical, so that it would fit in with contemporary theatrical conventions of the London West End. At the same time, the representation of African culture (music, song and dance) was also deliberately exoticised - to differentiate the musical from current productions on the circuit at that time. Ironically, this is the version that has been captured as a published script. The producers of the 2017 adaptation were critical of the London version of King Kong. The criticism they directed at the London version was that it was more of a "Broadwaydisation " of the South African version. Therefore, in the 2017 adaptation, extraneous scenes of gumboot dancing were removed. Additionally, the dramatic narrative was restructured as an unfolding dramatic narrative. This necessitated the writing of new scenes to illustrate why the character King Kong was revered in the township, as well as to actualise some key dramatic moments. Furthermore, the 2017 adaptation observed current social norms and sensitivities. One change involved changing the name of King Kong's opponent. In the original versions, the opponent was named "Apeman Khanyile", a name that was changed to Joe Khanyile as it would be inappropriate within contemporary discourse to stage a boxing match in which duelling African men were compared to apes. Another change involved the killing of Joyce. In the original, her death was merely presented as evidence of King Kong's downfall, thereby reducing the incident of her murder to secondary status. In the 2017 adaptation, the writers were cognisant of contemporary South African discourse on gender-based violence. Therefore, the new version asserts Joyce's victimisation at the hands of a man she knows. This shows that adaptations of theatre work of necessity take new social norms into account. Thus, adaptations involve more than updating a play's structure and dialogue - they also account for how one locates an old play within contemporary discourse, without losing the play's historical time setting and integrity. Despite being absent from South African stages for several decades, King Kong has significantly influenced the development of South African theatre, particularly within the genre of the South African musical. This legacy encompasses a variety of playwrights. The most literal manifestation of the cultural impact of King Kong is apparent in King Africa - The Musical (1988) in which the principal themes, style of presentation and music echoed those of King Kong. The cultural deposit of the musical ranges far and wide and sees the use of music as a contextual signifier for (African) society, culture and politics. Notably, Siebörger (2016) analyses Kramer and Petersen's District Six - The Musical, as an aspect of "public history". There are many other significant musicals which have devolved from this heritage, among them Brickhill-Burke's Meropa (1974), Kramer and Petersen's Poison (1994) and Richard Loring's African Footprint (2000). These illustrate the longevity of the (at times politicised) South A frican musical as a genre and further suggests that this theatrical category is embedded in South African theatre practice.

Palabras clave : King Kong; Makeba; Masekela; Matshikiza; adaptation; memory studies; musical.

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