Review: Paul Slabolepszy Fordsburg’s Finest speaks volumes about home, identity and how South Africa is embedded in the hearts of people

Fordsburg’s Finest – by Paul Slabolepszy
When: August 19 to September 10, 2022
Venue: Pieter Toerien’s Theatre On The Bay

Starring: Paul Slabolepszy and Chi Mhende
Direction:  Bobby Heaney
Writer: Paul Slabolepszy
Set design: Greg King.
Age restriction: PG13
Duration: Approx 85 minutes. No interval Ticket prices: R160 – R240 Booking link: Fordsburg’s Finest will be on in Johannesburg, at Pieter Toerien’s Monte Casino from September 16 to October 9, 2022.

Home: What happens when you return to your home – your place of birth? How does it make you feel? Paul Slabolepszy excavates through complex issues in his play Fordsburg’s Finest. He wrote the play in 1997. It premiered in February 1998, in Johannesburg at The Market Theatre. The narrative is set in 1996 and unpacks the tricky and initially bristly interaction between Thandi (Chi Mhende), a young Black, well-heeled woman from America and Freddy (Paul Slabolepszy) an aging, crumbling white used car dealer residing in Fordsburg, Johannesburg. This is the place where Thandi’s family once lived and now she has returned, to the New South Africa, to explore her roots. Her father was a musician and as a Black family, they left for America, seeking opportunities, beyond the confines of Apartheid South Africa. The family went into exile- shut out from their home- by the Apartheid regime. They left home and went after freedom.  Central to the play is the call-out for reconciliation. Despite their differences, anger and pre-conceptions. Thandi and Freddy are able to connect and find a common grounding in their shared humanity and recognition of the pain and struggles that they have both been through. This is lovely and uplifting. With Paul Slabs acute ear for dialogue (he gets how some people speak- White South Africans, affluent Americans, fabulous), the play is edged with mirth.

Chi Mhende and Paul Slab, under the skilful direction of Bobby Heaney give tender and nuanced performances. The chemistry between them is terrific as they lean in towards each other’s pasts and reflect on the present – in 1996. However, we are now in 2022 and for me, Fordsburg’s Finest is a period play. The nostalgia of the return to one’s home, to one’s origin story is tinged by deep sadness of where we are now as a country. with deep ruptures, with a severe deficiency of accountability and the state of this world in general, which is a mess.

In South Africa of 1996, we were still revelling in the euphoria of winning the Rugby World Cup, in 1995. It seemed that anything was possible in the Rainbow Nation and no matter the differences and divides, we could overcome and transcend race and class barriers. The play pings for me in relation to the film, Invictus (2009), directed by Clint Eastwood, with Madiba in reconciliation mode; embracing Francois Pienaar after leading the Springboks to victory at the Rugby World Cup 1995; talking to his former  jailors, giving jobs to those in the old regime. After the Invictus film, the year after, in 2010, we had the Football World Cup and that stirred our spirits and made gees the new buzz word.

Paul Slab writing Fordsburg’s Finest was mirroring and reflecting the changes in the country at the time and how people, such as those depicted in the play, were connecting, something that would not have been possible in the 1960s in South Africa. Thandi’s parents had left South Africa in 1959. The country was broken and about to break further with Sharpeville and all the rest. Returning in 1996 and it was a very different place to the 1960s. In 2022, that message remains utterly relevant- that we need to strive to talk to each other and listen to each other’s origin stories and embrace the feel-good nostalgia of returning to places that shaped us. The power of live performance is that it directs our gaze to look at ourselves and others and engage with our humanity. It makes us “feel”. We need to be jerked out of our fugue of anxiety and despair. By connecting with others, we can transcend difference and be present.  

Fordsburg’s Finest speaks volumes about home, identity and how South Africa is embedded in the hearts of people. One aphorism goes that ‘one can never go back’ – to a home or place that one has left. Many would counter that one can never leave South Africa -emotionally. This comes across profoundly in all of Slab’s plays- the love and attachment that South Africans feel for this country.

It is interesting how different people reacted to watching this play on opening night. Many chilled out with wine afterwards. For me, I felt very emotional and I did not socialise. For all of us, it was a wonder to enter the beautiful Theatre on the Bay and be presented with Greg King’s amazingly hyper realistic set- detailed and intricate with fabulous signage and décor. The 90s setting was before the advent of the widespread use of computer generated graphic design. The hand drawn signs in Freddy’s world have an unevenness which conjures up nostalgia for the past – which in many ways- was another country- to now. Then we were treated by powerful performances by Slab and Mhende. Thandi is so together, urbane, sophisticated and clearly way above Freddy’s frayed social status and his swaggering clowning to cover up his inadequacies. There is release and relief through laughter. However, the play evoked for me, a sense of sadness, particularly with its ending – which is ambiguous. I am about to production spoil, so stop reading, if you do not want to know more. This production ends with the playing of a song, of what I consider to be one of the most wrenching and bleak anti-apartheid songs: Weeping. The song was written by Dan Heymannn in the mid ‘80s and was recorded in 1987 with Heymann and the group, Bright Blue. Some of the lyrics:

“I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry
It was drawing near
Behind his house a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon
He could never face

He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns to keep it tame
Then standing back he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain”

In 2022, Apartheid may be gone. We have a robust constitution but violent crime is at an all-time high and “the fear and the fire and the guns remain.” I know many people in the live arts sector, across demographics of the old Apartheid classifications, who are leaving because they live in fear but they tell me that South Africa will always be home.

Home ground: Chi Mhende and Paul Slabolepszy in Fordsburg’s Finest – written by Slabolepszy. This is the 2022 revival production, directed by Bobby Heaney. The play premiered in February 1998, in Johannesburg at The Market Theatre. Pic by Jesse Kramer. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: Chi Mhende and Paul Slabolepszy in Fordsburg’s Finest, 2022 staging. Pic by Jesse Kramer. Supplied