Love shows the way to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

Paul Slabolep­szy’s play ‘Sud­denly the Storm’ show­ing at Hil­ton Arts Fes­ti­val

The Witness - - FRONT PAGE - SHAR­LENE VERS­FELD

I HAVE to con­fess up­front, I am a fan of Paul Slabolep­szy. I am also a friend of his.

I was the fan first, the friend part came later. That started off al­most 25 years ago when I be­gan my pub­lic­ity busi­ness.

I first worked with Slabolep­szy — known to his friends as “Slab” — and the late Bill Flynn in the mad­cap com­edy pro­duc­tion, Heel Against the Head in those heady days when the Spring­boks won the Rugby World Cup back in 1995.

Since then I have worked on most of his pro­duc­tions on tour to Dur­ban.

It is be­cause of our long-stand­ing con­nec­tion that I also find my­self the self-ap­pointed guardian of Slab’s words — like when the Ox­ford Book of Idioms at­trib­uted the first print use of the word “moe­goe” to Slab and they spelt his name in­cor­rectly. I wrote to tell them.

Re­cently I had a con­ver­sa­tion on Face­book with a well-known South African au­thor de­bat­ing whether you spelt “poephol” with or with­out the “h”. I knew it was with an “h”. It’s a word Paul uses. A lot.

I have al­ways loved his de­pic­tion of our uniquely South African sto­ries.

The char­ac­ters have al­ways res­onated for me. I see them. I know them — both the tragic and comedic and many of those in be­tween.

And what amazes me is that Slab con­tin­ues to pen story af­ter story, of­fer­ing South African so­ci­ety vary­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for self-re­flec­tion: an on­go­ing open in­vi­ta­tion to share and ex­plore new vis­tas on the fas­ci­nat­ing, for­ever chal­leng­ing world that we at the tip of Africa in­habit.

An ac­com­plished, award-win­ning ac­tor whose ca­reer be­gan way back in the early 1970s, Slabolep­szy is one of the coun­try’s most pro­lific play­wrights.

He has penned 33 plays, many screen and tele­vi­sion plays, as well as count­less ra­dio plays.

His lat­est of­fer­ing Sud­denly the Storm which has en­joyed crit­i­cal ac­claim in Dur­ban, Cape Town and Jo­han­nes­burg (win­ning the Naledi best new South African play award), will have two per­for­mances at this year’s Hil­ton Arts Fes­ti­val which be­gins to­day.

Sud­denly the Storm is Paul’s first play af­ter seven years and took him five years to write.

He de­scribes it as “a thriller, shot through with dark hu­mour and many twists and turns” which plays out when Namhla Gumede, born on June 16, 1976, ar­rives at a plot on the Far East Rand, be­long­ing to Dwayne and Shanell Com­brink, to seek an­swers to ques­tions that have been buried 40 long years.

“Sud­denly the Storm is in essence the story of our coun­try. It’s a pro­foundly poignant tale — heart-break­ingly sad and at the same time glo­ri­ously up­lift­ing,” he ex­plains.

“In­spired by events that have taken place in our coun­try over the past 40 odd years, the play throws into fo­cus the lives of three or­di­nary peo­ple and how liv­ing in this tor­tured yet glo­ri­ous land has shaped them.

“I had a need to tell a story that would re­veal that — be­yond the in­jus­tice and bru­tal­ity of a racist sys­tem that caused un­told mis­ery in the lives of the ma­jor­ity of its cit­i­zens — love can flour­ish; love can heal.

“The sins of the past will never be for­got­ten, but it is love and shar­ing that will show the way to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

Dare I ask him the ques­tion that so of­ten gets trot­ted out by those who do not know the ex­ten­sive body of Slab’s work — the one which asks about “his fas­ci­na­tion with the plight of the lower mid­dle class white South Africans and in par­tic­u­lar its men”.

He is quick to re­spond: “Not all my plays are about lower mid­dle class white men.

“This might have been true in my very early plays. If you look at Pale Na­tives, Whole in One, Crash­ing the Night, Not the Big Easy, Art of Charf, to name only a few of my 33 plays, the en­tire spec­trum of our so­ci­ety is cov­ered, with strong women fea­tur­ing in Braait Laaities, Art of Charf, Over the Hill, Fords­burg’s Finest, Crash­ing the Night and Sud­denly the Storm.

“Hav­ing said that, it is im­por­tant that we need to con­tinue to probe and to ques­tion. Right now a ter­ri­ble old white man is run­ning the most pow­er­ful na­tion on the planet. Should he be ig­nored be­cause he is both old and white?

“Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in our so­ci­ety im­pacts on ev­ery­thing else. There should be no life or per­son­al­ity, male or fe­male, that re­mains un­ex­am­ined. There are lessons and sto­ries ev­ery­where and the theatre is the ‘con­ver­sa­tion’ amongst all hu­man­ity that can never ever stop.”

Spend any length of time with Slab and you will soon re­alise that he is con­stantly schem­ing and plot­ting sto­ries. His brain is bub­bling with ideas and themes that could be po­ten­tial plays. What helps him to gather the ma­te­rial to write?

“I think ob­serv­ing, lis­ten­ing and tak­ing note of what peo­ple say and how they say it is im­por­tant. Ev­ery­thing — the se­crets, lies, the pain and the hap­pi­ness.

“I col­lect sto­ries or snip­pets of sto­ries that melt into other tales that lurk around ev­ery cor­ner. I am con­stantly cu­ri­ous, in­quis­i­tive about ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing.

“I be­lieve we can only ever tell our own sto­ries. I sat with Sud­denly the Storm for a long, long time. I had to tell it.

“We can­not go for­ward as a na­tion un­less we take stock of what has gone be­fore. This play is my ‘love-in-a-time-ofhate’ story.

There are still so many ques­tions (around 1976, for ex­am­ple) that need an­swer­ing. This story may or may not have hap­pened at that par­tic­u­lar time in our his­tory. One thing is for sure — this is a story that springs from our past.”

Fi­nally, be­cause we al­ways want to know, what are his three favourite plays?

“They all are my favourites but Sud­denly is up there along with Satur­day Night at the Palace and The Re­turn of Elvis du Pisanie. Palace is about ha­tred. Elvis is about re­demp­tion. And Storm is about love.”

• Catch Sud­denly the Storm in the Grindrod Bank Theatre at the Hil­ton Arts Fes­ti­val to­mor­row and Sun­day, Septem­ber 16 at 10 am.

The play is directed by Slab’s long­time friend and col­league, Bobby Heaney, and fea­tures Slab along­side Char­maine Weir-Smith and Re­nate Stu­ur­man.

Dur­ban de­signer Greg King cre­ated the evoca­tive set.

Tick­ets are R199. Please note: not suit­able for un­der 12s.

• Paul will also fea­ture in A Slice of Slab in con­ver­sa­tion with di­rec­tor and friend, Heaney, to­mor­row at 5 pm in the CFI Lec­ture Theatre. Tick­ets are R80.

If you love Slab’s plays, are study­ing or teach­ing about him at school or var­sity; here’s a su­perb op­por­tu­nity to get some fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into his in­spi­ra­tions and work.

PHOTO: SUZY BERN­STEIN PHOTO: HIL­TON ARTS FES­TI­VAL

A scene from Sud­denly the Storm, writ­ten by Paul Slabolep­szy, fea­tur­ing Re­nate Stu­ur­man, Char­maine Weir-Smith and Slabolep­szy. Paul Slabolep­szy.

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