By BRUCE DENNILL
Written in 1996 and recently updated by its playwright and star Paul Slabolepszy, Fordsburg’s Finest does not – unfortunately – feel dated. Its themes include loss, grief, loneliness and healing, all of which are timeless and universal. But its narrative, about South Africans from different backgrounds and with different worldviews who both struggle to define their identities in post-apartheid South Africa, is a snapshot of life today, from a thousand different local communities – 26 years after the story was written and the time period in which it is set.
Slabolepszy plays Freddie, a used car salesman who oversees a shabby lot in Fordsburg. Chi Mhende plays Thandeka, an ex-pat librarian who was told stories of her birth and childhood by her beloved late parents and has come to Johannesburg to try and physically connect with her memories. They’re an odd couple – he older and white, she younger and black; he unsophisticated and blunt, she well-read and probing; he wishing he still had what he’s lost; she seeking to understand what she never had the chance to really get to know. These disparities make their initial conversation understandably awkward, and there are enough detours off the main thread of their discussion to ensure that there can be no foregone conclusions as to the outcome of their tête-à-tête.
The multi-faceted nature of the pair’s interaction does occasionally give the script more prominence than the acting, rather than allowing for the truly natural feel of two people swapping perspectives when having an unplanned chat. But that is a minor quibble as each character allows a new detail of their outlook or psyche to enter the narrative, making both the other character and the audience reassess what they thought they knew about Freddie and Thandeka’s motives and reasons for not simply bowing out of the situation.
Setting all the action in a run-down used car dealership adds a number of layers. As a salesman of products that are no longer as good as they were and have reduced worth, Freddie is used to making up stories he doesn’t need to believe but which serve a purpose in keeping him going. And the grubby, weed-ridden lot as a metaphor for the prize apartheid was supposed to deliver to its white owner and a counter-balance to the brutality inflicted on Thandeka’s family and all other black South Africans is beyond pitiful.
Some of the loss explored in this story resulted from hubris and foolishness; some was inflicted on victims who bore it with dignity. The piece does well to underline that it all still hurts, and that there is not necessarily full healing or a lasting solution, whole not making either of the protagonists objects of pity. It shows that empathy is demanding but valuable and that being forced to think outside of your own box – audience members will find themselves doing this in their cars on the way home after a performance – is a necessary part of forming relationships that matter.
Greg King’s set has his trademark attention to detail – objects and minutiae that help create light and shade in Slabolepszy’s (as writer) development of the characters. Slabolepszy, as actor, offers major elements of his characteristic mix of bluster and sensitivity, along with some neat little comedic touches. And Mhende, particularly as her character relaxes in a new and unexpected milieu, combines uncertainty with growing intensity and eventually warmth. There are, in the performance under review, a few moments when her vocal projection is a touch insubstantial – the softer volume is appropriate to the tone of the dialogue at the time, but it’s difficult to hear the words clearly.
Fordsburg’s Finest is an important play for its addressing of issues – racism, sexism, land restitution and more – that have not gone away regardless of the passing of time and successive governments and whatever measures have been attempted. And it is good that the story doesn’t offer solutions – that would be trite and unhelpful – but that the lasting impression as you leave is that hope is possible. Sad, confused and uncertain many of us (as represented by these pretty normal people) may be, but, as happens to them, it is possible to rediscover that we have value somewhere and to someone.
Poignant and purposeful.