Last year the exquisitely staged historic musical King Kong had Cape Town audiences buzzing. After its initial success, it is no surprise that it is currently at the Fugard Theatre for a return season, and with some new faces too. We sat down to talk to Edith Plaatjies, who now steps into the Shebeen Queen shoes of Joyce opposite Andile Gumbi as King Kong, and Josslynn Hlenti, who brings a new perspective to the love struck Petal.
As two of the prominent female characters in this musical, Joyce and Petal juxtapose each other as they orbit around the same man. The most noticeable difference though is that Petal eventually realises that she won’t find happiness with King Kong and breaks free of his charm, while Joyce indicates that she wants to get away from him but can’t seem to distance herself enough to find her own happiness. Joyce and Petal represent a balance between romance and tragedy, because Pop (marvellously portrayed by the phenomenal Desmond Dube) points out, much like a seesaw, when someone goes up, someone else inevitably comes down.
Because of that balance, the musical evokes a mixture of reaction from the audience – at one time you may champion Petal and soon after you find yourself drawn to Joyce’s chutzpa, all the time evolving with them as their relationships with King Kong evolves and changes.
“You like them for difference reasons,” says Hlenti. “They are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, and they represent two different kind of woman. Both of them are strong in their own right, but they are nevertheless different kind of women. Petal has chosen to take the education route – she’s doing that stuff and that’s working for her. Joyce has chosen to take the hustle, the hard life – well not chosen, but it is part of her path – and she handles that like women did in that day, and how women are still doing today.” This gives great insight into the sentiment repeated in the show at different times for different persuasive reasons, but the rationale remains a sens of independence: “ I am no man’s dame, I’m Joyce!”
“Yeah, she’s an independent woman,” Plaatjies agrees. “The one thing about the character of Joyce that I adore is the fact that she does not lean on anyone. She want’s people to know that it doesn’t matter whether you are the police, or some gangster, or the king of this town, she is not going to depend on anyone else but herself. She runs her own shebeen – this woman, she makes her own beer first, that is my Joyce – and no one supplies her with anything. She and the two ladies who work for her, they all work really hard. That’s it, that’s her support system, the characters Peggy and Thando. Her business is her pride. Without that, I feel, Joyce would just be an ordinary female if she did not have that. She’s strong.” “Joyce is also one of those women who knows that she has to do certain things to survive and she takes pride in that, she’s not ashamed of it,” Hlenti adds. “She knows what she needs to do to make her life as a woman work and Petal doesn’t.”
Talking with Plaatjies and Hlenti it becomes clear that they really put thought into the circumstances and personalities of their characters, truly exploring the fact that Petal is (at least at the start of the musical) more of an idealistic romantic, while Joyce is a realist that lives day-to-day. Seeing them on stage too, it is evident that their performances, as Joyce and Petal respectively, are about more than just hitting the notes and giving the audience some great musical numbers. They respect their characters and the women they are. That depth of understanding adds another dimension to the King Kong book, a dimension that appears to be unique to this return season's cast interpretation, without taking anything away from the 2017 ensemble and their vibrant dynamics.
Director Jonathan Munby strongly encouraged that approach and level of character development during pick-up rehearsals. “He has quite an interesting way of working,” Plaatjies explains. “I personally have learnt so much from working with Jonathan. He allows you to play around, so you find what works for you, while also being very technical and very detailed, which is good. I admire and love that. It’s very refreshing.” “He doesn’t just generalise, which is good for actors,” Hlenti adds. “He allows you to work out your part, your story, your narrative within the bigger picture. Sometimes we as actors skim through that because we want to focus on what we see as the important things, the obvious things the people will see, but it’s actually the little narratives that are in between and the connections that are important. That’s what Jonathan is about, he works on those things, so that when you see the big picture, it all makes sense.” Plaatjies and Hlenti are in complete agreement that Munby’s directing style showed them that when you understand your character in detail it adds nuances to the bigger picture that would otherwise go unnoticed.
It is also this approach to directing that helped Plaatjies find a way to deal with the violence that goes along with the character of Joyce. Munby helped her work through that to allow her to steps onto stage as this fierce Shebeen Queen in this cautionary tale. She candidly admits that this was something she initially struggled with:
“I spoke to Jonathan about it, about how to handle such violence while playing a woman who not just emotionally but also physically needs to be strong, when in real life I don’t need to do that now. But I also realised that thinking about past experiences, which happened to me as Edith, gets me to that point of switching to the person I need to be as Joyce who deals with violence. In the beginning when we worked it, I would be frightened, but now I can be that strong woman and face this dead on and handle it. Whereas a lot of females today are afraid because they don’t want to be judged – which is completely normal I feel – the thing is to try and find that inner strength. The best part of a hurricane is when you are in the middle of it. That’s the best place to be. That’s how I try to the handle violence for the role of Joyce.”
Because of this empowerment and activist angle to the musical – an angle people perhaps won’t generally associate with a musical about a boxing legend – Hlenti sees this production as relatable for women today. “Especially South African women, we’ve all faced some form of violence. Walking through the streets as a woman – the eyes, the whistling, the cat calls, the comments – it is all part of the violence and we can all relate to it. We can all empathise.” In fact, Hlenti takes it even further than Joyce’s character when she observes that “all women in this show are very, very strong. Also Miriam [played by Ntambo Rapatla], who is with Jack [King Kong’s manager and trainer, played by Tshamano Sebe].” “All the women in the show are the breadwinners. Joyce is running her own business, Petal teaches, Miriam is a nurse. Jack doesn’t get paid because he is doing this thing setting up fights for King. All of the women hold the pillars of the show.”
This strong feminist movement subtext in King Kong becomes even more fascinating when Plaatjies talks about the research she did to make the role of Joyce her own. “I researched Shebeen Queens back then. You could not do wrong to any female; you would be beaten up by the rest of the Shebeen Queens if you did any wrong to any one of them. So there was no such thing as ‘we need to watch what we say to a man’ or ‘walk and dress a certain way because it’s not appropriate for women to wear certain clothing’, because females had a say and they protected themselves.”
“That was around about the time when the women were getting together and speaking about their rights and trying to vote,” Hlenti contextualises. “The male characters in the show chase their dreams, while the women are the realists. They are watching TV and wanting to be gangsters. And the female characters are like, ‘we are going to go to school, we are going to make this money, and live, because that’s the only way you can survive in this world’ – they can’t depend on the men.” From that perspective, King Kong is also story that says 'keep up with us or stay behind, but we are moving forward'. In the end, Joyce in taking this stance is perhaps too strong a woman for King Kong, activating a sense of insecurity when she makes it clear that she won't wait for him to get his life together.
Even though Joyce makes certain survival driven choices, Plaatjies admits she still to some degree gravitates to the men in her life, which itself is also a warning. “We are so strong, yet we still think that we need them, we are still chasing them. Joyce still thinks she needs them. Petal is still chasing King even though she can see that there is nothing.” Maybe it’s a question of hope, albeit sometimes misplaced hope. Hlenti certainly regards Petal as having a hopefulness to her character. She sees the best in everybody, and perhaps that’s where hope takes root. Even when King Kong goes to prison the first time, there is no shame or judgement in her reaction towards him, merely a sense that ‘you are out, you are back, now the future waits’. “Petal is there until the end”, says Plaatjies, “until he loses that last fight.” “She’s there. And that’s a woman with hope. I mean, how many times have we not done that.” Hope then is a strange thing that can either show itself as a manifestation of resilience or lead to hurt and disappointment.
“It’s that high pain-threshold we as women have,” Hlenti explains. “We just don’t know when to draw the line until it is the end.” That certainly is highlighted in the return season of King Kong, where the leading ladies have a clear understanding of what the women in this production bring to the narrative, clearly aware of Joyce and Petal's strengths and their vices.
Along with the character development and research Plaatjies and Hlenti also got to challenge themselves as King Kong is a musical that gets the feet tapping more than once. Both profess themselves not to be dancers by nature, but willing to, through their characters, embrace the vibrancy that comes along with this musical. A vibrancy to which the choreography contributes greatly. They unequivocally state that this and their ability to embrace the rhythm of Sophiatown is all thanks to the talented Gregory Maqoma.
If Plaatjies could describe Maqoma in one word that would be “amazing”. “It’s a challenge, but he makes us look good. It’s astonishing how he can look at someone, can work with them for a few weeks, and then just know what they can do and what they can’t. That’s what Greg is all about, he makes you look like you’ve done this for years. So it’s challenging, but it’s great at the same time.”
While Plaatjies was the understudy for Joyce during the first King Kong run at the Fugard Theatre, Hlenti as one of the “newbies” has similar praise for Maqoma as choreographer. “It hasn’t been that difficult to catch up with what the guys have been doing, with what Greg has choreographed so far, because he knows how to make it look good, especially as we are singers first and not really in tune with the body as much as we should be. He just knows how to tie in what we are saying to the body, and make it easier for us.”
This link between the story and the physical expression thereof is part of this production's appeal.Having seen King Kong three times now, it is difficult to even imagine that someone could walk out of the show and not appreciate how the choreography takes the narrative and turns it into movement to add to the impact of the musical. That, along with the fact that they are a very tight-knit cast, helps the performers “tell the story of Sophiatown”, says Hlenti. “Yes, we are crazy and we have our different personalities, but we are there to support each other and we respect each other’s craft, each other’s artistry. Everyone has to be in sync, because people back then were a community, they were a big family. They used the township to forget what was happening outside.”
That is where one finds the magic of this cautionary tale driven musical. “You’ve not seen a bunch of young people, with some a bit of age,” Plaatjies teases, “with so much fire”. “With this musical, there is no racial barrier. This one brings people together in that it speaks to independent females. It speaks to that guys who lost his vision somewhere along the way – seeing King Kong pursue his dream will just wake him up. If you miss this opportunity, you will definitely miss that one moment when you can reach for your goals.” Hlenti agrees that King Kong is indeed something special, because “there aren’t many musicals for South Africans, and this is a South African musical for South Africans.” That’s why she encourages everyone to come and experience this production:
"We are telling our story. We aren’t telling some American story or some other. It is our story, so there is something for South Africans to relate to, for us to look back at and compare to our now, and to see where we are going. That’s what this story is about. It’s beautiful, come and see!"
Book your tickets online through Webtickets to see King Kong at the Fugard Theatre before run ends 4 March 2018.