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When Roy Sargeant approached Paul Slabolepszy to write a new play for Artscape’s New Writing Programme that is devoted to the professional writing and production of new South African plays, he didn’t have the time, but he had something in hand.
A few years back he had completely reworked a script that he had only performed for a short season at the National Arts Festival, with a different title. Slabolepszy describes My Low-Fat, Almost Italian Wedding (which opened yesterday) as a kind of period piece, capturing the lives of people who have to go through change.
It’s set in what was then the “new” South Africa in what is referred to in Gauteng as the Hillbrow/Yeoville/Berea triangle. For those not familiar with the particular place, in the past Hillbrow was regarded as one of the more progressive sub- urbs because it had such a cosmopolitan population and especially the restaurant landscape reflected this international flavour.
But it’s also one of the areas that changed so dramatically that today many are scared to even drive through, especially Hillbrow, which at that time was the entertainment hub of Joburg by night.
This is the story of an Italian trattoria that has been there for many years but the owner, Salvatore, is old and every- thing around him is, to his mind, disintegrating.
The story tells of the mar- riage of Salvatore’s and Maria’s daughter, Victoria. The day turns into wild comic chaos as chef Alpheus tries to take over the ristorante in order to sell pap en vleis. Will the bride be stood up at the altar? Has Clyde’s security company shot dead an employee?
Okay, he’s black, but at the dawn of the new South Africa (1994) is everyone up for change? For Salvatore, even though the day goes crazy, it is still the beautiful country and perhaps he will abandon his plans to return to Italy.
It started for Slabolepszy, the son of a Polish immigrant, when he met an Italian, a former prisoner of war who had worked on the Du Toit’s Kloof tunnel, as many of them had done, and then stayed.
“We met one day in Colesberg and he told me his story,” says the playwright, who started exploring some of the issues.
“I’ve had to tweak some things because it was initially written just before the ‘94 elections and I’m curious to see how we see it now.” At that time, 20 years ago, change was in the making.
Directed by Roy Sargeant, who has selected a fantastic cast including Graham Hopkins, Anthea Thompson, Hannah Borthwick, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, James Cairns, Mark Elderkin and Murray Steyn, the show opened yesterday and runs until January 4. It’s a beautiful thing and Slabolepszy is thrilled.
“I am flying down for the opening,” he says. And again he’s keen to see what Hopkins does with the role. “The charac- ter is 75 after all!”
More than anything, beyond all the angst the play’s story might suggest, it’s a fun thing. “It’s a hotchpotch of local characters who have to make sense of their world,” he explains. But it’s a wedding, perhaps one that never happens, and we all know how that festivity can fall apart.
Producing your own plays is a tough ask and Slabolepszy is pleased as punch that this one has been given new life. He’s crossing fingers and toes that it might have a life beyond. This seems to be yet another hit coming for this much admired South African playwright.
One of his most provocative pieces, Pale Natives, is being revived at The Market next year and it’s being dedicated to one of Slabolepszy’s best tjommies, the late Bill Flynn, who was also in the original cast.
“The Hangover stole from us,” he says, smiling broadly, because this has been a long time coming. “Jana Cilliers, Bill’s wife, will pay tribute to Bill on that historic opening night,” he says proudly.
But before that, it’s time for fun and games as a typical Slab constellation of characters gather for celebrations and probably some kind of fireworks.