Engaging memoir tells the story behind SA's iconic musical 'King Kong'

'King Kong — Our Knot Of Time & Music' is as engrossing for history buffs as it is for musical theatre groupies. Author Pat Williams tells us more

08 August 2017 - 11:57 By Bruce Denill
Miriam Makeba, right, played Joyce, Nathan Mdledle was  King Kong and James Thompson in the background  took the role of Slim in the original 1959 production of 'King Kong'.
Miriam Makeba, right, played Joyce, Nathan Mdledle was King Kong and James Thompson in the background took the role of Slim in the original 1959 production of 'King Kong'.
Image: Courtesy of Irene Menell

Lyricist Pat Williams was 23 when she was drafted in for a stage show in early development, working with composer Todd Matshikiza to create the songs for King Kong, South Africa's first musical.

This 1959 production was a launch pad for a number of this country's biggest stars, including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

Now 86, Williams has written a warm, engaging memoir - King Kong - Our Knot Of Time & Music (Portobello) - insightful of her experiences of that time.

She writes with extraordinary sensitivity, born of her naivety at the beginning of the process. Her wide-eyed wonder leaves her open to having her contribution undervalued, but it also means that the perspective of the creation she presents is fantastically exciting and stimulating.

The challenges of the era were daunting. King Kong featured an all-black cast, and many of the creative team were also black, making everything from meetings to rehearsals and, ultimately, performances a minefield as security police interfered and actors and musicians risked their personal safety by getting involved.

King Kong — Our Knot Of Time & Music isas engrossing for readers interested in historyas it is for musical theatre groupies.

Williams' passion for the material she helped craft is infectious. 


We chat to Williams about her memoir and the revival of King Kong, which sees the musical return to SA's stages this September.

Your story reveals to outsiders the immense investment and sacrifice - in terms of money, creativity, relationships, integrity and even personal safety (for the cast members subject to the pass laws of that era) - required to make King Kong happen. How emotional was the journey of reliving this when you wrote the book?

My mind jumped back to 1959 as if it were the present. It was such a strong feeling that I wrote everything in the present tense; like I was feeling the possibilities of the future and sensing my world expanding as I met these incredible people all over again.

There were painful bits, too - like not getting the credit I deserved at the time. But I've learned - now that I'm older and wiser - that sort of thing is par for the course in theatre. It happens to everyone.

Your perspective on memoir-writing is refreshing: you acknowledge early on that what you remember as absolute truth may not match someone else's recollection. In that light, how important was the tone and intent of your writing versus trying to construct precise descriptive passages?

I was trying to present the experience with all the detailed intensity that my memory allowed - the flavour of it; the enthusiasm, and the joy we felt in each other's company, despite the risks involved in the apartheid state.

Another part of it, though, is me as an 86-year-old woman, sitting and thinking: "Some people will believe me, and some will think I'm talking out of a hat!" I don't really mind either way.

The legacy of King Kong the stage musical is extraordinary. The book and the revival of the show highlights the talent of its creators. It's nearly three generations since it opened in theatres, though. How do you expect readers and audiences to respond?

Then we were all living through apartheid, and we were all damaged. At that time the context was so real. We would have recognised the gangsters portrayed on stage - some of them might have been in the theatre.

Our lives were being pushed down, but it felt like the music was springing up. Now much of that context is gone. This production is more like pure theatre. And there might be people who say things like: "It's not like the original." Well, it can't be, can it? Things have changed.

• 'King Kong' runs until September 2 at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town (tickets at Computicket) and at the Joburg Theatre from September 12 until October 8 (tickets at Webtickets).

• This article was originally published in The Times.