Sing and dance, the beloved country

Apartheid razed District Six in Cape Town to the ground. But the vibrant spirit of the area lives on, in a hit musical called 'Kat and the Kings', which arrives in London this week. Mary Braid in South Africa claps her hands dark. Mary Braid
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IT'S BEEN almost 20 years, but South African actor Jody Abrahams, 23, has not forgotten the avocado tree, and all the futile hope that was tied up in its survival. A few weeks before he takes to the stage in the first post-apartheid South African musical to open in London's West End - and the first ever to focus on the country's coloured (mixed-race) community - Abrahams is standing on the lower slopes of Cape Town's beautiful Table Mountain, on the scrubland where his family used to live. He seems to be seeing it all again, through a little boy's eyes; the eviction, and his father's subsequent pilgrimages "home" to water the precious avocado. Abrahams senior also locked the front door of the condemned building and always carried the key, though this too flew in the face of the awful realities of the day. There would never be any going home. Bulldozers were poised to flatten the house, and thousands of others like it.

Apartheid was responsible for a mountain of atrocities, but none scarred the collective consciousness of coloured South Africans more than the razing of Cape Town's District Six, and the forced removal, under the Group Areas Act, of its 70,000 - mainly coloured - residents. When it was declared a whites-only area by the government in 1966, the District was a squalid but vibrant neighbourhood. It also just happened to be one and a half square miles of prime real estate. The bulldozers arrived a few years after the decree, and demolitions continued until mission was accomplished in 1979. "People were ripped out by the roots," says Abrahams, set to play a District Six singer in the London show. "Old people died waiting for the bulldozers; others soon after they moved."

The repercussions are still felt today a few miles east on the Cape Flats, the vast, poverty-ridden sandy plains around which the residents of District Six were scattered, destroying ancient networks of neighbours, relatives and friends. There, the death of community has bred nihilism. The Flats are now controlled by gangsters whose rivalry for drug turf regularly erupts into running gun battles amidst the endless rows of little houses, paint-peeled and graffiti-scarred. District Six was officially renamed Zonnebloem ("sunflower"); but somehow, the name never caught on. Today, it is mostly open fields, except for a few eerily isolated churches, and mosques which even the National Party shirked from flattening. Public revulsion has prevented major redevelopment.

SUCH a painful history is surely the stuff of tragedy or heavy political theatre. But when the six-strong cast - almost entirely Cape-coloured - of Kat and the Kings opens at the Vaudeville Theatre, District Six will be the focus for a dizzy, energetic celebration. The musical is a tribute to another time and place; a tribute, above all, to human resilience.

Kat and the Kings is one of a handful of recent musicals by Taliep Peterson and his partner, David Kramer. One of South Africa's most famous musical teams, the men have been writing together since 1986. Peterson was born and raised in District Six, and grew up idolising the local musicians celebrated in the pair's work. Kramer was famous long before the partnership. During apartheid, he enjoyed the distinction of being South Africa's most- banned white performer. On the Flats he still seems to be the cat's whiskers, constantly stopped by fans.

Legend has it that when Kramer showed visiting American musician Paul Simon around Cape Town, they were besieged by crowds. Simon was almost trampled in the rush to reach Kramer. The reasons for his popularity are obvious. He is the white boy who became fascinated by the history and culture of the coloureds - the majority in the Cape, condemned by apartheid to a racial no-man's land.

In Kat and the Kings, apartheid is always present. But the agonies it inflicted are only occasionally given centre stage, and never hammered home. This is partly because the show has a flimsy storyline, which often disappears in the sheer energy of the music and dance. But Kat and the Kings positively sets out to uncork on stage the spirit of people who managed not just to survive the system but to party.

For the cast, performance lives right next door to real life. This is particularly true of Salie Daniels, 57, the old man of this youthful team and the undisputed star. Daniels grew up in District Six and was forcibly resettled on the Flats, where he still lives in a modest little house, round the corner from the pushers, the pimps and foul-mouthed child gangsters. No room for luvviedom here.

Living on the Flats brings street cred aplenty: and local gangsters recently added edge by hijacking Daniels at gunpoint. "They knew me and I knew them," he says, laughing. "They thought I had money."

And he did have money - once. Kat and the Kings is in fact his story. Set in the late 1950s, it tells the story of the Rockets, a band Daniels joined in his teens and which became the toast of the District before being signed up by EMI. The show's central conceit has Daniels, the ageing, fallen star, working the streets of present-day Cape Town as a shoeshine man. His memories of the District during the dying days of crooning and the onset of rock'n'roll are the backbone of the show. The younger actors play members of his band, and Jody Abrahams plays him as a young man.

In the old days, Daniels was the District's very own Frank Sinatra. Today he is weathered and lined, but still wiry and whippet-thin, like Sinatra used to be. And Daniels is still absurdly cool, and a terrific singer. He has never forsaken the style or music of the times.

Until the District Six musicals breathed new life into his career, Daniels's Fifties stage act - which would have gone down a storm in Scottish working-class clubs - was, well, rather out of fashion in the Cape. "I always say (to artists), tell your own stories," says Kramer. "But in communities like this, what they did was imitate." Hardly surprising, with the system always pushing a message about the worthlessness of coloureds. Daniels is more phlegmatic about apartheid than Abrahams, who is angry that District Six residents did not resist eviction. "We have never been militant enough," he says; "We were always waiting for the whites to invite us in." It isn't that Daniels does not condemn apartheid's assault on his community. It is just that he seems to think the real victory was in not allowing the system to destroy his life. "It did not really worry me," he says. "I was on the road. I was just enjoying my life like I still am today ... I have the same great love of showbusiness."

When the Rockets hit the big time in the early 1960s, they were invited to appear at Durban's swankiest hotel; an episode borrowed by Kat and the Kings. When they arrived, the "stars" discovered that colour - not talent - was what really counted. They were forced to work as bell boys by day, and after performances to sleep with the coloured and black staff on the hotel roof. When they made the charts, apartheid curtailed their exposure. Their records could only be played during "coloured" airtime: 15 measly minutes a week.

Daniels does not blame the break-up of the band on the system, although at least two members succumbed to alcohol and gangsterism. He appears not to dwell on what might have been. He says he just got on with life; occasionally bucking the system by walking on to whites-only beaches or attending whites-only cinemas and pointing to his green eyes if challenged. "It showed they did not really know who was what at all," he laughs. "It was people like you who spoilt apartheid, man," Kramer jokes.

KRAMER and Peterson's musicals are enormously popular. Through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa is currently struggling to expose the atrocities of the apartheid years. Kramer and Peterson in their way are also helping reconstruct a history that otherwise might have died.

In Kat and the Kings, the truth lies in jokes and throwaway lines. The social schizophrenia of the coloureds - never white enough for the National Party, and now, not black enough for the ANC - is highlighted by passing references to the lighter-skinned "super-coloureds", who responded to apartheid by "going for" [masquerading as] white. In the new South Africa, coloureds are apparently already "going for" black.

Jody Abrahams was raised by a grandmother so light-skinned, she had a white ID. In "going for white", she dragged him along and robbed him - initially at least - of his culture. He blames the system, not his grandmother. You do not need to know any of this to enjoy the show. But the background points beyond rock'n'roll to the issue of identity.

Identity - and a sense of the past - dominate Cape Town's tiny District Six museum, the first and only to explore "coloured" history. It is an emotional focal point for old neighbours who lost touch during the diaspora across the Flats. A sign on the wall declares: "In this exhibition we do not wish to recreate District Six as much as to repossess the history of the area as a place where people lived, loved and struggled. It is our attempt to take back our right to signpost our lives with those things which we hold dear." That a search for identity is at the heart of so many visits is confirmed by a huge roll of white calico covered with visitors' messages. "To forget the past is to forget yourself," reads one.

In a small way, Kat and the Kings attempts to rebuild the spirit of the past. It is a noble cause, but Salei and the boys dance and sing their way towards it in the lightest, most joyful, incredibly uplifting way.

'Kat and the Kings': Vaudeville, WC2 (0171 836 9987), previews from Wed, opens 23 Mar.