PLAYWRIGHT Paul Grootboom hit us hard with plays like Relativity, Foreplay and Rhetorical. But he’s not going to stop any time soon.
This time, with a title like Protest, he immediately sets off alarm bells.
“I was fascinated by the service delivery protests,” he says, but what really grabbed his attention were all the forces at play.
He’s talking revenge, politics, crime and then, hopefully, people who are genuinely interested in changing lives for the better.
Much is being swept under the carpet, but Grootboom argues that both on the streets and on the stages we are dealing with a new activism.
“For me it’s getting to a point where I’m really interested in socialism,” says this theatre whiz, who likes telling stories in a language of his own. But he’s also found an audience who know if they follow him, he will tear open their hearts in what might be spectacular fashion.
Socialism isn’t something he wants to practise, but he is intrigued by the cause because of the present society where everyone seems to be only for himself.
“It happens even in poor communities,” he says. “Whenever there’s a group, there’s an elite that follows. Everyone seems to feel oppressed,” he says. “But every-thing is about themselves.”
And in some way, it manifests itself in protests and he finds that fascinating. We all have an idea of the poor, but when we have to deal with particular problems, it’s not part of our memory banks.
In Grootboom’s case there were two incidents that still rattle around in his head. On one occasion he was visiting a friend in the Rustenburg area in a poor township. When it was time for lunch, a few inhabitants living close together started preparing the meal. “They were making that sour pap and atchar,” he says.
But what he found amazing was that no questions were asked.
“This is what they eat every day, pap, water and atchar, so there didn’t have to be any communication.”
The other is a female cousin with two kids struggling to make ends meet who has to work weekends.
“She never complains,” he says. “She just gets on with it. Yet a male cousin who has much more money is always complaining,” he says.
It’s the way people function, the way they are turned or stand steadfast that he is investigating.
“I’ve always wanted to do something with the Ghanaian book The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” he says and probably that will come. But for the moment, he is taking some of those ideas expressed about people who refuse to give in and want to make a difference. “It’s about manoeuvring,” he says.
In Protest he creates a character flirting with crime who is drawn into the protests, but is then turned by the people and their problems and becomes determined to let his own discretion be his tutor.
“I’m trying to show how individuals grapple with things, how they struggle to make the right choices and that these decisions don’t happen overnight,” he says.
He thinks, for example, of both miners and politicians who often have more than one family to care for. The one has almost no money and it’s about survival and the other has much more, but because of expanding families, probably wants more and more and becomes trapped in that lifestyle.
“I’ve been walking around with these ideas growing in my head for a long time,” he says, “Long before Marikana,” even though his friend and mentor Aubrey Sekhaba is working with that topic specifically.
As he writes and rehearses, the ideas keep coming and changing.
“The play I write about in the festival book has completely been turned on its head,” he laughs.
But that is Grootboom, who works in a specific way.
“My cast is furious because they can’t start learning words,” he says.
But as we were talking he was getting ready to turn on the heat, with Desmond Dube arriving the next day. Apart from three or four actors, the rest of the huge cast are all his development kids. He picks them with a keen eye, starts training and, once in a while, one has wings.
“It’s tough,” says Grootboom, but as a talent who was picked out himself, he knows and understands that particular dream.
He also knows that when people talk about the poor or anything that’s not part of their particular world, they forget that these are real people who have to make a living. These are real lives we’re pointing at and people with their own dreams.
“They usually don’t complain, they make do. When they have little to eat and are constantly forced to eat the same thing, they’re not even doing it miserably.”
It’s that tenacity that he wants to explore. He remembers a time when people would sit around all day and discuss the things others have that they want.
“Greed comes from that want,” he believes.
The production he’s hoping to create is an African Threepenny Opera, “it’s a drama with music,” he says. And he crosses his fingers, hoping the theatre gods are smiling...
• Protest plays at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on Main Festival today (July 8) and Thursday (July 10). It moves to Pretoria’s State Theatre right after the festival and opens on Tuesday, July 15.