On 2 February 1959, a musical about the life and times of heavyweight boxing star Ezekiel Dhlamini (known as ‘King Kong’) opened in Johannesburg to a packed audience that included Nelson Mandela. King Kong was not just South Africa’s first ever musical, but one that grew out of a collaboration between black people and white, and showcased an all-black cast. It was an instant hit, bursting through the barriers of apartheid and eventually playing to 200,000 South Africans of every colour before transferring to London’s West End.
Pat Williams, the show’s lyricist, was at the time an apolitical young woman trying to free herself from the controls and prejudices of the genteel white society in which she lived. Here she recounts her experience of growing up in a divided South Africa, her involvement in the musical, and its lasting impact both on herself and on the show’s cast, many of whom went on to find international fame, like South African jazz legends Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Her memoir takes the story up to the present day. It is both a vivid evocation of a troubled time and place as well as a celebration of a joyous production, in which a group of young people came together in South Africa’s dark times – to create a show which still lives on today.