Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Kat & the Kings

First appeared
Thursday, 18 October 2012


If post-apartheid South Africa can be summed up in one phrase, it is “a dream deferred” – that memorable alliteration from African-American poet Langstone Hughes, borrowed by Mark Gevisser for the title of his biography of Thabo Mbeki. “What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Hughes. “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” Or does it “fester like a sore” and “stink like rotten meat”?

Undoubtedly, many South Africans grew disillusioned under Mbeki, not only because of his individual failures as president, but also because it became clear that the national “dream” of racial reconciliation and socio-economic transformation was far away. Those who supported Jacob Zuma’s rise to power have since had to confront the folly of their dream of a “people’s president”. And people like me, who once hoped that Zwelinzima Vavi’s COSATU would grow in integrity as a political force, have also seen our dreams dashed in the recklessness of recent labour disputes.

Dreams and ambitions are dangerous things. But without their naïve fervour, we turn to cynicism and despair. And sometimes – just sometimes – dreams come true. It’s no wonder, then, that South African audiences have responded with such enthusiasm to the revival of David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s Kat & the Kings, a musical that prompts us to celebrate dreams (or memories) of something better.

First staged in Cape Town in 1995, Kat & the Kings went on to award-winning runs in London, New York and various European cities. With Kramer at the helm as director and a fresh young cast (Dean Dorvan Balie, Zakariyah Toerien, Grant Peres, Carlo Daniels and Amy Trout), this new production was a sell-out success at the Fugard Theatre before moving to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg – a space that has hosted numerous musicals in the past but that can only benefit from a high-energy, big-sound, bright-and-bold piece of stage-craft such as this one.

Kat is set in the rock’n’roll era of the fifties and sixties, when talented youngsters who could sing and dance patterned themselves by turns on crooning balladeers à la Perry Como, four-part harmony groups such as the Platters and rebel rockers like Elvis, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. It was more difficult for some than for others – and never more difficult than for a group of coloured kids in apartheid South Africa. So the story of Kat Diamond and his unlikely fellow-stars (their names say it all: Magoo, Bingo and Ballie) is both a ‘universal’ comedy and a specifically ‘local’ tragedy.

Kat and his Cavalla Kings – taking their name from a popular cigarette brand – manage, for a brief time, to buck the system of racial segregation. They cut a record, they play in hotels, they have day-jobs as bellboys just so that they can perform at night. The law catches them out, however, when their manager-songwriter Lucy and their agent transgress the notorious Immorality Act. Kat attempts a solo career but gambles away all the money he earns and ends up a has-been who shines shoes for a living.

Kat & the Kings is presented to the audience through this elderly figure (Danny Butler); thus, despite his celebration of what was – a celebratory tone that infuses joy and laughter into the dialogue and into most of the musical numbers – the story is in fact a desperately sad reminder of what never-could-be. This echoes, or is echoed in, a greater nostalgia for District Six. As collaborators, Kramer and Petersen were in large measure responsible for reinscribing District Six into the South African national imagination in the 1980s. As with Sofiatown, we tend now to affirm the vibrant multiculturalism of District Six and to forget its social problems, but perhaps that is necessary for its symbolic status: what is nostalgia, after all, but a dream of the past? (Hughes wrote of another possible outcome for a dream deferred – it can “crust and sugar over/like a syrupy sweet”.)

The show is also, however, haunted by personal and national histories. When Ballie’s friends warn him against getting married, equating it with death, audience members familiar with the circumstances surrounding Petersen’s murder will experience a cold chill amidst the fun. Likewise, when the quartet performs the number “Lagunya” in traditional Zulu garb, one can’t help but squirm at the race dynamics entailed in coloured men performing “blackface” for a white audience.

Kat & the Kings will leave you feeling invigorated and full of admiration for the team who put this production together. It doesn’t exorcise the past, nor should it; we need not dwell too much on Kat Diamond’s deferred dream. And yet, in South Africa circa 2012, the conclusion to Hughes’ poem is ominous. “Maybe”, he says, a deferred dream “just sags/like a heavy load ... Or does it explode?”


* Kat & the Kings is at Pieter Toerien's Montecasino Theatre until 18 November



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