HUGE CAST: Aubrey Sekhabi, left, in rehearsal for Marikana  The Musical.

SO SHAKEN was State Theatre artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi when he read the book We Are Going to Kill Each Other Today, about the Marikana massacre, he knew he wanted to tell that story.

“I was going to do a play titled Whistleblower, go back to kitchen sink, for the National Arts Festival, but felt that the Marikana story was the right one for right now – 20 years of our democracy,” he explains.

It was easier said than done, because he had to get permission all round both from the festival as well as the State Theatre council. But Sekhabi knows how to sell theatre and he wanted this badly.

Sekhabi was contacted by one of the authors about adapting the Marikana story for stage and, reading it from beginning to end in one sitting, he knew he wanted to do it – with music. That’s always been Sekhabi’s strength, the way he interweaves his stories with song, starting with Nkonyeni High.

Think Shaka Zulu and Sarafina! rather than High School Musical or Lion King. “It’s always been the African way,” he says. And he was reminded that, every step of the way, the miners would be singing. “It’s the way we work with pain, how we deal with trauma,” says Sekhabi. He still shudders when he thinks of all the videos and the scary pictures he has waded through. “It was truly terrifying, a really bad time.”

But there were 2 000 to 3 000 men there and 44 were killed. “That’s why I wanted to do it,” he says. It made him shudder to think how easy it is to lose lives. “The book constantly reminded me that these were people.”

They went to speak to the parents and family back in Lesotho who told their stories. “They could be your brother,” he adds.

Then there were single sentences, moments that affected him deeply and would become a song. “An old man said that he didn’t want to talk about his son, he wanted to weep for him. An Indian guy spoke about the sight of so many pangas, more than he had ever seen. It became such a large part of the strike,” says Sekhabi, who again pushed for a song.

He couldn’t put all of Marikana on stage, but what he has done is to have specific representatives for the different elements – all part of the horrific events. “This is a play about healing,” he explains. “We have to go back to that place, that foundation we have of forgiving. This is a democracy, which means we can differ but we don’t have to fight. We can live in the same house and belong to different political parties, but we don’t kill one another.” This is an issue he feels strongly we should grab by the throat, confront and make peace with.

“How do we do such awful things to one another? Something is wrong if it comes to that and it may reach back much further to a time when African riches were being exploited by the Western powers,” he believes. “One life, though, is one too many – no matter the origin.”

That is what he’s really battling.

“We need to talk about it and learn from it. It should never happen again. We need to uphold those democratic values we fought so hard for.”

With the production and the script, he’s not reinventing the wheel. He wants to tell the story simply, accurately and with a compelling heft which he hopes the music will highlight and strengthen. “I’m simply providing some kind of form and taking the story forward,” he says.

With the help of composer and cast member Mpho McKenzie Matome and producer Zakhele Mabena, they’ve already got 21 songs in many of the indigenous languages, but mainly English. The story is told through lyrics and text, so the audience needs to get the gist, or they will miss out. But Sekhabi has that covered. The music and the many different styles from traditional to maskandi, whatever the mood of the story at a particular stage, are also part of the texture of the piece.

Sekhabi almost whispers when we talk cast members. “It’s huge,” he says. There are 28 and that’s not counting the musicians. Heading the cast is Meschack Mavuso and Aubrey Poo and a strong chorus, with Emma Mmekwa leading the women. “I also have six youngsters who are going through the development process and an assistant director who is in training.”

On the production side he has two of the best, with Declan Randal on lighting and Wilhelm Disbergen as set designer, with the acclaimed choreographer Thabo Rapoo giving a hand with the movement.

Sekhabi knows this is a huge challenge, but is encouraged by the importance of the story, which he believes should be told to as many people as possible right now. He hopes that at some stage he can bus in the miners to witness their own story. “They see themselves as warriors,” he says. “Simply no one was prepared to step down.”

It’s about changing lives that have been downtrodden for generations. It’s a community that has never been taken care of.

“If their living conditions were better, they could bring their families with them,” says Sekhabi.

Instead, he says angrily, “in some of the townships they are expected to live like pigs.”

Harsh comment, but Sekhabi knows that unless people understand the circumstances, they cannot understand what and how Marikana happened.

• Marikana – The Musical plays tomorrow at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It moves to Pretoria’s State Theatre from September 30 to October 19.