Maverick Life

Theatre Review

Fordsburg’s Finest: When history, longing and belonging meet in a used car lot

Fordsburg’s Finest: When history, longing and belonging meet in a used car lot
Freddie (Paul Slabolepszy) and Thandeka (Chi Mendhe) in a scene from 'Fordsburg’s Finest' now on at the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town. Image: Supplied

As the lights come up on Freddie Volschenk, it is circa 1996 and he is tackling a scraggly bird’s nest lodged in the eaves of his rickety office which overlooks his used car lot in Fordsburg.

74 Pioneer Street, where “Foxy” Freddie (Paul Slabolepszy) – dapper in his bowtie – operates his business is a metaphorical ley line. 

It is a space where history is about to align, albeit briefly and painfully, but not without humour, as Thandeka (Chi Mhende), daughter of South African exiles to the US, returns to post-apartheid South Africa to seek the place of her birth.

Dislodging the nest, Freddie finds an orphaned, fledgeling pigeon, alive, needy, vulnerable. It is an unexpected find, an intrusion, something to keep alive, something that demands time, care and responsibility. And he’s not up for any more of that.

Freddie is a fiftysomething former police reservist whose son has been a casualty of apartheid wars. Thandeka has dim memories of home garnished with memories of those who carried these over the ocean. Both her musician parents died when she was young, a tragedy which shapes the self-possessed older Thandeka, whom America has marked.

She is from here but not of here, and longs for connection.

Since penning his first play in 1979, Slabolepszy has written a whopping 35 plays. He has written ten since Fordsburg’s Finest.

Slabolepszy’s longevity and his relevance as a playwright, actor and screenwriter are evident in this mighty body of work. And as theatre critic Robert Greig noted, Paul Slab is “the cartographer of the white male soul facing the abyss”.

The backstory to the revival of this tender two-hander is an online reading organised during the Covid-19 lockdown. Theatre people found themselves as part of a  combined US/SA Zoom set of readings of plays that dealt with race and racism.

Fordsburg Finest was one of these texts and it was after this reading that Slabolepszy says he was inspired to revive the play. And he is now determined to turn it into a screenplay. 

In many ways now is the right time to stage this work. South Africans were perhaps not yet ready and too raw, and perhaps too elated in the early post-1994 Mandela glow for what lies beneath this work to be revealed in full. But with time the script has acquired a deeper meaning and relevance.

Both Freddie and Thandeka have lost what is most dear to the human heart, mind and soul – parents, a country and a home in Thandeka’s case, and in Freddie’s, a son, to a useless border war.

When Thandeka unfolds the small piece of paper looking for No 74, Freddie has just managed to dislodge the nest.

What follows is an excavation of self, belonging, and the meaning of home. For Freddie, it is coming to terms with his past as a white man, the loss of his son, the futility of war and the system that created him and exiled Thandeka’s family.

Then there is the family, Freddie’s brother, who has not accepted democracy.

Seeing Slab back on stage is a treat. He is able to inhabit and animate each quintessentially Slabesque character, like Freddie, with his jokes, his fragility, his quirks so fully it seems strange that when the curtain falls, Freddie exists only on a page.

At first, Thandeka struggles to connect or find emotional traction in the run-down ruins of what once was her home, now part of Freddie’s office.

But as the play progresses it is clear that Freddie and Thandeka are themselves two fragile birds left alone in their nests, unmoored, alienated, seeking release, kindness and connection.

Back on stage after five years, Mhende is well known for her role as Wandile Radebe in the TV soap Generations: The Legacy and Queen Sono.

Zimbabwean-born Mhende brings to Thandeka a quiet sorrow below her confident exterior. She is willing to engage with this strange old white man and show him her pain, demanding he sees it. The play is beautifully paced and directed by the legendary Bobby Heaney. 

For an evening of laughter and tears in equal measure… try and see it. DM/ ML

Fordsburg’s Finest runs at the Theatre on the Bay until 10 September before transferring to Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg from 16 September to 9 October.

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