In November last year, the State Theatre’s artistic director, Aubrey Sekhabi, was invited to a three-day conference in Germany where discussion was focused on the global food crisis and possible ways to resolve it.
The task for the State Theatre, together with seven other performing arts institutions (from South Africa, Belgium, Burkina Faso, the UK, Mali, India and Brazil), following intense research on the global food crisis and rising food prices, was to produce a play on this issue.
“I was listening to talks on issues ranging from intellectual property of seeds to industrial security, as well as many other issues around hunger and food,” explains Sekhabi.
But in the end he concluded that theatre was about people. “If you want the attention of audiences, you have to tell stories about real people,” he said.
“We don’t care about or understand food security,” says Sekhabi, who decided he would focus on urban hunger.
Have you ever been without food for three or four days? Have you ever thought about those who have? These were the issues he wanted to get to grips with.
“It’s not a good feeling, hunger,” he says, having decided to get to the root of the problem. “I went to speak to street people. We so often disregard them, but they haven’t asked to be out there begging.”
He also noticed that the quality of meat in the east of Pretoria was much better than that bought in Soshanguve. “It’s quite disturbing.”
He knows food is a big issue with all the food shows out there. “People are interested, and yet few know or care about those who are constantly struggling to find food.”
With his play Hungry, he listened to many different stories.
When he asked one homeless guy about his diet and how often he ate meat, the response was that meat had disappeared from his life long ago.
“I was inspired to write by these real-life stories,” says Sekhabi.
And once he starts talking story details, you just can’t stop him.
But that’s savvy Sekhabi’s way of catching his audience unawares. Tell them a good story, and get those details in there for them to digest along the way.
He has gone to the source, to the community, where hunger is a constant worry.
Creating a family that people will recognise and showing the horror of those people who struggle every day to survive makes us aware of what it is like to battle, not with big truths, but with the basics.
When people are struggling at that level, concerned merely with staying alive, things seem to go wrong in avalanche fashion.
He’s gathered a stellar cast, with Brendon Auret in the role of a journalist who has fallen on hard times, but is given a chance to redeem himself. He has to get the story right, and has moved in with a community on a downward curve and desperately trying to scrape by.
Others in the cast include Macks Papo, Siphiwe Emma Mmekwa, Patrick Bokabo, Josias Moleelo, Masago Leele, Refuwe Mofokeng, Cameron McEwan, Kgaugelo Sithole and Isaac Ditinti.
“I’ve tried to work with both experience and youth,” says the director, who knows that everyone benefits from that kind of balancing act. He started with a cast of four and, in typical Sekhabi style, as the story grew, he finally ended with a group of 14.
“The universal language of theatre breaks down all the barriers. The challenge of food is happening in many parts of the world, and it’s a universal story whose origins differ only because of political, geographical and economic circumstances,” he notes.
Locally, we’re talking grants and subsidies that keep families afloat, but are also abused in many different ways, with young women having babies simply to secure the money. “It all becomes a huge hustle,” says Sekhabi.
But these are desperate times with desperate people. “It’s a community story,” he says, an arena that he has perfected.
Sometimes, like this, he moves into the community and other times, like his next project that deals with Marikana, the scale and scope will be bigger.
“It’s a daunting tale, but we have to investigate these issues,” he says.
That’s his Grahamstown contribution this year, while his State Theatre comrade, Paul Grootboom, is presenting a play titled Protest. “Those are for the main programme, and we have two plays on the fringe.”
But there’s even more excitement. On May 31, Hungry will be part of a live streaming event as the plays participating from around the world are shown digitally.
“It’s important that we all become vibrant in this digital age,” says Sekhabi, who is starting to look at broadcasting more work from the theatre – doing his own NT Live version, but with local productions. Watch this space.
• Hungry opens tomorrow in the Arena, State Theatre, and runs until June 1.