As a 12-year-old schoolboy, Paul Slabolepszy, one of South Africa’s most outspoken anti-apartheid playwrights, had his first encounter with political protest.
Raised in a conservative, rural town and educated at a segregated Catholic boarding school, Slabolepszy remembers traveling to Johannesburg for a sporting event with the swim team. On the way, the bus full of rowdy young boys stopped next to a group of white women marching to protest the government’s segregated education system.
“Communists,” he thought to himself, parroting the expression he often heard in his hometown of Wit-bank. He then reached into his bag to find a sack of oranges, which he hurled at the protesters.
It was nothing but school-boy mischief at the time, but more than three decades later Slabolepszy recalls the incident with embarrassment
The 45-year-old playwright grew up in what he calls the Deep South of South Africa, and many of his characters are plucked from this landscape. It wasn’t until he entered the University of Cape Town that he experienced radical politics.
“My kind of awakening was sudden and explosive,” says Slabolepszy, who writes about South Africa’s racial problems with great sensitivity and is one of the few local playwrights who attracts both black and white audiences. Since 1982, he has written and staged a play a year.
Writing to fill the void
Long gone are Slabolepszy’s days as a right-wing conservative. In the front hall of his two-story house hang framed posters from his 16 plays. The one for Braait Laaities, a play he wrote in 1991, shows a black man and a white woman sitting together. “In Bloemfontein right-wingers spray-painted |traitor’ across these posters, which were hung all over town,” recalls Slabolepszy.
His plays contain snippets and flashes of autobiography. He portrays things that he saw growing up among right-wing Afrikaners in middle South Africa where his Polish father–a former Royal Air Force pilot–worked in a copper mine.
In school he wanted to be a sports writer. He kept a notebook filled with random incidents, which he jotted down in dialogue form. “I guess it has always been in me to write plays,” says Slabolepszy, a founding member of Cape Town’s Space Theatre with Athol Fugard and Yvonne Bryceland in 1972.
As he continued to work in South Africa, Slabolepszy discovered that–apart from Fugard–there was a dearth of new South African plays, and began writing to fill the void. An actor as well as a writer, he often performs in his own work.
Slabolepszy’s real breakthrough came in 1982 with Saturday Night at the Palace, which he eventually performed at the Old Vic in London.
The idea for Palace, which revolves around a confrontation at a roadhouse diner, came from a brief, front-page story in a Johannesburg newspaper. The headline read |Bizarre Attack on Roadhouse.’ The article described how several white youths rode up to a diner at 2 o’clock in the morning as a black waiter was closing up for the night. They threw a smoke canister through the window. He ran out and they beat him up. “It was a tiny little article. That’s all it said,” remembers Slabolepszy. “Stories like that make you ask, |What really happened that night?’ Something else must have happened.”
One of the several characters who eventually came together in Palace is a black man who lives in a remote homeland but works in Johannesburg; as he packs his bags, he talks about what it is like living in a big city and having to migrate 400 miles back and forth to work. The youth who becomes his principal adversary is an out-of-work white soccer player.
Palace and his other early plays were angry works in which Slabolepszy was trying to expose the system. Now his work tends to be about reconciliation. He writes night and day, and at present has three plays on the burner. “It’s this outpouring all the time. I have so many stories to tell,” he says. There is the same urgency to his writing that there is to his speech.
It is Slabolepszy’s dialogue that distinguishes him from other playwrights of his generation. He has managed to capture the essence of both black and white South African slang. He uses township rap–a speech that combines phrases from English, Zulu and Afrikaans–throughout his plays, particularly Palace and Mooi Street Moves, his most recent work.
“Actors love to do Paul’s plays,” says his wife Carol, a former ballet dancer. “He writes for actors. He writes the way people speak. The words sit very comfortably with the actors.”
Infatuated with Eivis
Slabolepszy has been tagged the next Fugard, but he doesn’t like to be compared with his well-known countryman. He says his dialogue is not Fugardian. “Fugard doesn’t speak in broken sentences, in the language of the street. His dialogue is universal. It’s accessible–long, flowery, lyrical passages. I don’t care whether or not someone overseas understands the slang in my plays. I’m doing it for my local people.”
Nevertheless, Slabolepszy’s plays have traveled to London, Munich and the Edinburgh Festival–and this month, his American premiere will come when Mooi Street Moves opens at MetroStage, a small professional theatre company in the Washington, D.C. area which is known locally for its Fugard productions.
As the recipient of a grant from the U.S. Information Service, Slabolepszy finished a whirlwind tour of regional theatres in the United States last April. Though he had never before been to the States, bits of Americana (the by-product of watching American movies) crop up regularly in his plays. Sitting at his dining room table wearing an Elvis Presley T-shirt that he bought at Macy’s in New York, slabolepszy says he wishes that he could have gone to Graceland during his recent trip.
His infatuation with Elvis is reflected in one of Slabolepszy’s most successful plays, last year’s The Return of Elvis du Pisanie, a one-man show about a man on the verge of suicide. “It’s about confronting pain,” says the playwright, who also appeared as the show’s central character. “South African men are told to bury their pain.” Elvis du Pisanie is the sole survivor of a family bloodbath–he alone escaped being killed by his father because he was standing outside a movie house waiting for his famous namesake to make an appearance.
Asked whether he thinks he can ever leave South Africa, Slabolepszy answers a resounding no. “We are entangled in an issue that is so prevalent–we’re living on the edge all the time,” says Slabolepszy. “That’s why I could only function in South Africa. I’m interested in writing for this audience. It’s the people here that I know so well. Their voices are inside my head. I have to give life to those voices and thoughts.”