national Arts Festival Banner

Saturday, December 3, 2022



(Above: Chi Mhende & Paul Slabolepszy)

It is a play that will bring you to your knees laughing and allow you goosebump moments to weep alongside the mourned loss the performers endure…. Don't miss this one Durban. (Review by Deborah Mailovich

Chemistry is the expected dynamic when Titans clash and that is exactly what is delivered in Paul Slabolepszy's arguably 'finest' two hander Fordsburg's Finest, directed by seasoned award-winning director Bobby Heaney, with well-known Slabolepszy and soap star Chi Mhende from Generations and DIFF fame, catapulted into the historical South African rainbow nation play, with the set designed by Greg King redefining the theatre space to provide plausibility via verisimilitude, a mode resembling an authentic 1996 used car dealership.

Heaney's familiarity with South African Theatre spaces doesn't disappoint and the direction within the superbly detailed set by Greg King, anticipated the shifting transformational grounds of the two sterling performers who find themselves within the confines of the intimate Loft Theatre while negotiating the intricacies of South African race and the politics automatically inherited from a country caught in a civil war.

Greg King transforms the Loft Theatre space into "Foxie Freddies Used Car" lot sales office promising "Best Buys as good as new". The calendar on the back wall alerts us to the year. It is1996 and the clock tells us it's 09h30. The front 'stoep' diagonally angled on a south-east trajectory has a couple of porch steps and the roof over the porch holds a bird's nest with a live fledgling. The interior of the office is dated and rather grubby with dusty curtains, a steel framed bookshelf predominantly filled with books on Africa and a picture of Freddie's son among the other tired paraphernalia. Alongside the bookshelf on the left is an open door kept in place against the wall shelf with a half brick and a fire extinguisher. On the left is a cluttered noticeboard and adjacent to that, a board with hundreds of car keys on hooks. Jutting into the room with a chair either side is a counter that doubles as a desk with delivery queries, telephone and old papers, and alongside this is a rough couch and smallish circular coffee table. The office area is roofed with open rafters and the outside sprinkled with stones, sand and occasional dead grass on a speckled floor cloth. The matching unkempt exterior is replete with garden chair, rubbish bin and rough wooden garden bench from stage left into centre with a hose, bucket and spare tyre on the right. It is the honesty in this level of detail that authenticates the set and creates a believability that signals award-winning set designer Greg King as one of South Africa's finest set designers.

The entire environment is tired, dusty and looks as if it was constructed decades ago. Now into this space, insert Heaney's phenomenal directorial eye with particularly defined spaces filled with live action that has us the audience perched on the fringe of the actor's space looking through the intimate fourth wall, while actors locate each framed action in appropriate spatial zones that are distinctive and transitionally smooth and poignant.

(Left: Paul Slabolepszy)

The close proximity of the performers enhances the intense moments in the character's relationship as ironies abound and recognizable characters emerge. The play opens to Toto's "Africa", news of the constitution's adoption, and some quintessential South African Radio adverts as Freddie, played astutely by glib, smooth talking, charmer Paul Slabolepszy, who enters stage, finds a broom and removes a bird's nest with the intention of beating the fledgling to a pulp, so that there's one less bird 'crapping' on the used cars at 74 Pioneer Street. A phone call from his illogically angry, impulsively violent, racist brother wanting more stunt cars, prevents the annihilation of the baby bird, in time for returning exile, American Thandeka's intervention.

This response immediately sets the tone for the polar opposition of our protagonists, namely: single, old, white, chauvinistic, ingrained racist male, unconcerned with environmental issues, dressed in a formal plaid shirt, slacks and bow tie, with clichéd politically incorrect invective, meets single, young, black feminist, concerned with saving the animal kingdom, minimising pollution, and abiding by a health-conscious eating plan while wearing jeans, casual jacket and headscarf.

(Right: Chi Mhende)

Thandeka shows sensitivity on all levels demonstrating compassion in regard to all humanitarian liberal issues. Perhaps the sadist invective is the recognisable racism and identifiable anger that remains floundering and lashing out in unpleasantness and intentional injury post-Independence.

The heaviness of the issues on stage is continuously underscored by the ironic humour that our unlikely Joburg 'Viking' sprouts as well as via the raised eyebrows of our flabbergasted returning exile when confronted with the uneducated referencing of our middle-aged Romeo, currently advertising for 'love' and allegedly quoting Shakespeare: "There are many things ...", "Hell, he said so many things ...". His pathetic faith in assuming this young woman accustomed to New York Museums, music halls and a wide selection of films could find his limitations interesting is juxtaposed against her realisation that being the princess of African planes determined by her exotic name, all accompanied by rousing Meadowland Songs, is a pipe dream when weighted against the lack of pavements and the shacks of 1996 Soweto. The shock of this poor infrastructure, signals Thandeka's connection to America as a more familiar home, and is easily weighted against Freddie's renouncement of European ancestral ties in favour of his African sense of belonging.

The gender discrepancies are constantly engaged. However, the engagement is light-hearted and naive and revolves around the ability to carry water on your head rather than engaging deeper economic inequalities. Conversely, this discourse is certainly indicative of an early 90s conversation rather than a 2022 one. The gender discussions highlight the sudden confrontations post patriarchal domination and recollect an isolated autocracy. In this section we unravel their background and decipher who they have become, as well as confront audiences with the type of 'verkrampte' worldview of a small 19th century Johannesburg suburb like Fordsburg with a town square that imitated the Johannesburg town square and had a history of the harsh treatment of miners during protests. By extension reflecting Slabolepszy's portrayal of industry in small economically disempowered suburbs where second-hand goods market, rather than excitingly vintage shops prevail, dull 'has beens', claimed by Freddie as pass-me-down-cars from the wealthier Fordsburg community.

The play provides a crossroad for clichéd turmoil but is ultimately a play about overcoming the wounds, forgiving the shortcomings and finding the miracles of African Ubuntu. It's about turning on fairy lights in the car park and placing Foxie Freddie's name in lights. It is about the surprises, the goosebumps we feel when Thandeka (Chi Mhende) sobs at her irretrievable history and her inability to connect with her sacrificed roots and the horrific disempowerment and consequent life-long wounds imposed by this sense of lost agency. Freddie acknowledges his guilt and the retribution and sacrifice demanded by his patriotism. The repartee throughout is witty and quick in true Slabolepszy style, and the timing of the actors impeccable in delivery.

It is a play that will bring you to your knees laughing and allow you goosebump moments to weep alongside the mourned loss the performers endure. The play digs deep into the wounds of the past but leaves us with two polar opposites encased in the blue and straw lighting with back lighting behind the windows as they heroically band together against refrains of the national anthem protecting each other against the ugly face of racist anger and violence.

The play, down from Gauteng, which opened last night to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, runs for only two more days over the weekend. Don't miss this one, Durban. Tickets at the unbelievable low price of R100 per person are available for December 3-4, at 18h30 and 15h00 respectively. Bookings for The Playhouse Loft Theatre online at - Deborah Mailovich