Featured image: Cover of Sunday Times, September 17, 2017.
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussions about suicide and domestic violence which may be upsetting for some readers.
If you are experiencing suicidal ideations, please call the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Danielle Sanchez: A lot is going on with boxing right now, with Hulu’s series about Mike Tyson and Saturday night’s Canelo Álvarez and Gennady Golovkin fight. The interconnected nature of boxing and pop culture seems to be alive and well in the twenty first century, but it’s part of a much larger history, which is one of the reasons why I’m so excited to chat with you about your book, Opposing Apartheid on Stage: King Kong the Musical (University of Rochester Press, 2020). For people who aren’t familiar with Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini and King Kong the musical, could you provide an introduction to both?
Tyler Fleming: Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini was a boxer from rural northern KwaZulu-Natal who arrived in Johannesburg in the 1940s and became a heavyweight boxer of significant fame, in part because he’s seen as a bigger than life figure in an age where there weren’t many black heavyweights in South Africa. He was essentially ginormous for his era. He was flamboyant, angry, and violent, which captured the imagination of the South African public. That launches him as a major figure in South Africa and he becomes famous or infamous, depending on who you ask. He was violent and murdered at least three people during his life, including his romantic partner, who he believed was spying on him. He ended up going to prison for her murder, where he either took his own life or was killed by the authorities. There were lots of conspiracy theories circulating in South Africa after his death. It was quite a mystery for many people. Shortly after his death, there was a song that was released about him and that earworm eventually made its way to Harry Bloom, a white South African lawyer/author, who decided to create a jazz musical about King Kong and his life. He thought it would be apolitical enough that it could be staged in apartheid South Africa, but also could be a story that represented the pulse and vibrancy of South Africa’s black neighborhoods.
DS: Let’s start with the boxing aspect of your book. Most people have never heard of Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini, so what are a few things that you think are particularly interesting about him?
TF: Dlamini had a pretty unique style of boxing and was known throughout Johannesburg, South Africa for having unorthodox training methods. Still, he probably wasn’t as good of a boxer as local lore claims. In my research, I found out that he had lost at least four fights and he didn’t fight that much. He only lost one fight as a professional and the others were from his time as an amateur. He wasn’t quite the unbeatable champ that people claimed he was at the time and afterwards.
DS: One of the things that I love about your book is that understanding of Dlamini happens in a few different ways. Readers are able to get a sense of his public persona and the ways that people internalized him as a boxer and celebrity. However, you also talk about his very real mental and physical health struggle. How did you untangle these two different aspects of his life while working on the project?
TF: It was really hard. I’m not a trained psychologist, so that made things tricky. I tried to parse out what was fact and fiction, particularly in the reporting. I was constantly trying to figure out what really happened and what might have been things that reporters added into articles for a bit of flair. It was really hard to try to discern. I went with my gut for a lot of it, but I also tried to focus as much as I could on the facts and allow the sources to pull me rather than the opinions of journalists of the time. In the ‘50s, when Dlamini was at his height, the journalists had a vested interest in making him cartoonish and feed into the “King Kong” myth rather than accurately report on what was happening to him. I tried to do my best to untangle the two and get to the man rather than the myth while also pointing out where the myth is coming from.
DS: That sounds incredibly complicated, and I’m sure it was really difficult and frustrating work.
TF: The project was very complicated at times. I had to become an expert on boxing in the 50s, jazz, musical theater, and South Africa in the 50s, jazz cultures in the US and Britain, musical theater cultures in Britain and the United States in the 60s and 70s. It took a lot of work and stretched both my mind and my interests in a lot of different ways.
DS: I want to take us back to boxing for now. We will talk about theater in a little bit. As you already mentioned, press coverage of Dlamini is a really important part of the first few chapters of your book. Can you think of any comparisons with contemporary sports and media coverage? Specifically, the hypervisibility of celebrity athletes in both public and private spheres?
TF: I think the experiences of contemporary athletes are a bit different. The one thing with Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini, the boxer, is that he was involved with not just violence and street violence, but he was also engaged in domestic violence. One thing that really struck me with the reaction to the most recent King Kong remake from 2017 was that some of the critics were concerned about this musical built around a guy who essentially murders his romantic partner in a country that is still reconciling its own issues concerning gender-based violence. You see this a lot with the NFL when it comes to gender-based violence. For example, this is currently happening with Deshaun Watson. The public has become more discerning in the way people deal with these “idols.” In some ways we haven’t and there are some people who get away with being imperfect and that becomes a sort of selling point for them. For the most part, though, they have to go through a period of redemption. I don’t think Mike Tyson would have had the staying power he has now if he hadn’t gone through a period of being contrite for his past actions and dealing with his issues around addiction.
DS: When you started this project, were you more of a boxing historian, jazz historian, or theater historian?
TF: From the beginning, I saw myself as a pop culture historian. I wanted to do a project on the experiences of artists from Johannesburg to exile and back. The problem was, this project was just too big and meandering. Then I thought that I could perhaps focus on a few artists, musicians, and short story writers. The thing I just kept coming back to was that everybody that I wanted to write about had actually been in King Kong. For example, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and The Manhattan Brothers were all tied to King Kong. That’s when I had the “Aha!” moment and realized that I could focus on Dlamini and use the story of the musical to tell a larger tale about South African pop culture history. Through that, I became interested in South African boxing history and South African theater history. In many ways, I was underprepared for what I was about to embark upon, but I hope I did it in a decent fashion.
DS: I think you did. Benjamin Lawrance, who reviewed your book for African Studies Review, and the Author Meets Critic roundtable at the 2021 African Studies Association all agreed that the book is incredible. Okay, back to the musical, how did racial politics in South Africa influence the production of King Kong?
TF: King Kong debuted in 1959, 11 years after apartheid formally began in South Africa. It went in front of multiracial audiences and became very popular in South Africa. The dynamics are really fascinating because the play was so popular at a time when South African society was becoming more and more split because of apartheid. After seeing the production, audience members often made cases for and against apartheid. Within the cast, crew, and directors/producers dynamic, there were folks who were interested in crossing the color line, and had done so in the past in many cases. They continued to transgress apartheid norms, but at the same time, the dynamics of race and who had power seeped onto the set of King Kong. The play had all white directors, lyricists, producers, and black South Africans had a limited role in the decision making process.
DS: In terms of popularity, Is there a recent musical theater production that you could compare to King Kong?
TF: It was interesting to write my book during the height of Hamilton’s popularity. People who had never seen Hamilton knew the lyrics to the songs. It became a cultural phenomenon that extended far beyond Broadway even before Hamilton went on tour. That was something that was really powerful for me to think about because it helped me better understand how much of a cultural phenomenon King Kong became in the late 1950s and early 1960s in South Africa. People who had never been in a theater before had exposure to King Kong and had strong feelings about the musical. It was really powerful.
DS: One of the things that is really intriguing about Dlamini’s life is the way that people responded to him and saw him as a relatable celebrity.
TF: Absolutely. He wasn’t born in Johannesburg and didn’t grow up there. He wasn’t a slick cosmopolitan man. He could have been called a “country bumpkin” or, in tsotsitaal, a dzao. He refused to conform to city standards and people who had roots in the rural areas and traditional beliefs could empathize with Dlamini and his own struggles. Then, when the musical came out, it really made him seem grander than he was and bigger than he was. It erased some of the negatives about him and his myth became even more popular.
DS: That’s really interesting. I’m thinking about what it would have meant for Miriam Makeba to have been part of a production of his life in 1959. Would that have helped solidify the myth and level of Dlamini’s posthumous fame?
TF: Well, in 1959, Miriam Makeba was popular locally, but didn’t become the superstar we know her as until the 1960s. King Kong had a lasting impact in South Africa and pop culture history because of the popularity of the songs and the afterlives of the performers enhanced the staying power of the musical and Ezekiel Dlamini, especially people like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
DS: Let’s talk about the soundtrack. For people who haven’t read your book (and obviously should), could you please help them understand the popularity of this soundtrack?
TF: The songs from King Kong had a lot of staying power over the last 70 years. The soundtrack was reportedly played in shebeens (illegal drinking establishments) and in townships and neighborhoods. You could hear people whistling the songs in the streets of Johannesburg in the 1960s. My former Zulu instructor told me about the day that her father came home with a record player and three records. One of the records was the soundtrack of King Kong. A lot of people remember the musical through this record. It really cemented the legacy of King Kong.
DS: If you could hop in a time traveling Delorean or the TARDIS and see any of the stagings of King Kong, which one would you choose?
TF: I would use the TARDIS to take me to the original opening of King Kong in 1959. I would like to see the original production, of course, but I also want to feel the electricity of what it was like in the audience. If I could, I would try to get backstage to see what was happening with the cast and how they reacted to the audience’s laughter and applause during certain parts of the production. The idea of a major interracial production happening in South Africa in 1959 at the University of Witswatersrand’s Great Hall… I just think being there for that would be so illuminating and powerful.
To find out more about Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini and King Kong, the musical, read Tyler Fleming’s fantastic book. You can purchase it from the Boydell and Brewer website and other retailers. You can also ask your local public library and/or institutional library to purchase a copy.
Tyler Fleming is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Pan-African Studies and History at the University of Louisville. His research focuses on black South African popular cultures (i.e. sports, music, theater, magazines) during the 20th century. His book, Opposing Apartheid on Stage: King Kong the Musical, was published by University of Rochester Press in 2020. Outside the classroom, he plays fantasy sports and video games. He also loves watching The Wire, The Walking Dead, and Battlestar Galactica.