Theatresauce's latest production Come Home And Eat is as Malaysian as it gets. It draws its title from the phrase many Malaysians grow up hearing from their parents and elders.
On the surface, it sounds like little more than a simple request. But its subtext is complex and meaningful, where food becomes a medium to convey affection, express concern, offer forgiveness and rekindle fraught relationships.
Come Home And Eat, which opens at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) on April 13, brings together a diverse ensemble who share a common obsession for local food. It has been written collectively by the Theatresauce team, and marks the first production of the company’s 2023 season.
Using food as a metaphor, this production looks at home, identity and belonging from diverse viewpoints, including historical (where did our ingredients come from?), mythical (how did a superior being bring rice to our nation?), social (why do some mothers insist their children should learn how to cook?) and political (if a ministry of food existed, what reforms would they make?).
Come Home And Eat's line-up includes Farah Rani, Kamini Senthilathiban, Nabil Zakaria, Nephi Shaine, Nicholas Augustin, Ryan Yap and Sharanya Radhakrishnan. The show is also a sequel to last year’s Theatresauce production Don’t Like It Here? Then Leave.
“Food has always been an integral part of the Malaysian identity. It is beyond utilitarian – food to us is more than just to fill our stomachs so we can function on the daily. It brings people together, it is used to express feelings, it connects us to people who are far away. It reminds us of people who have gone. It reflects our historical trajectory,” says Kelvin Wong, Theatresauce director, producer, educator and founder.
“It is a window to our hopes and anxieties. The obsession with food is our common denominator, I would even go as far as saying it is one of the very few things that unifies us as a nation more than language. Well, apart from badminton,” he adds.
It is personal to him as well; he relates that all his life he had either eaten food made by his mother or someone else, until he left for the United States to pursue his master’s degree in 2012.
After two weeks of eating pasta, pizza, sandwiches, steaks and bagels, he had quite enough of it and bought himself a rice cooker.
“Then came the pots and pans – and I didn’t forget the wok. Through texts and video calls with my mum, I learnt to cook for the first time in my life. I made food I grew up eating in Ipoh and KL. That kept me sane and motivated throughout.
“When I moved in with (fellow) Malaysian theatremakers Jonathan Chew and Tung Jit Yang in New York after my graduation in 2015, food was one of the things we looked forward to during cold winter nights. I was the cook of the house. It was also my turn to teach them to cook. Over familiar meals we would talk about our anxieties on theatre and what home meant to us,” says Wong.
The director will be leaving Malaysia once again to pursue his PhD later this year.
“Whether or not a Chinatown or an Asian grocery store existed in the city played a significant role in my university selection. I imagine I will be making a lot more meals when I am abroad,” he says.
The cast shares much of the same close connections with food as Wong.
Kamini notes how she has been exploring her Indian identity and place in Malaysia using food as a connection to these parts of herself.
“These issues feel more urgent to me than ever as I grow older, especially with our never-changing social and political climate. In this production, we experiment with all sorts of media and theatrical forms to tell stories, making for an entertaining show with some big laughs and heartfelt moments,” says Kamini.
For Williams, stories that explore family and connecting to our roots resonate deeply with her, despite – or perhaps because of – her complex relationship with her own.
“They are personal because I am of mixed race (Kadazan and Chinese) but I have never been connected to either of my roots,” says Williams.
Sharanya describes Come Home And Eat as a distillation of everyone’s real life experiences and stories.
“You will be able to see it all come to life on stage. To me, the best thing about this production is finding commonality in stories that aren’t mine. Finding personal themes in other ensemble members’ stories has been very healing,” says Sharanya.
Then, there are also the familial bonds strengthened through shared cooking experiences and kitchen time.
“I took up cooking because of my mother. Did our relationship get better in the process? Find out in the show! I think anyone that bleeds Malaysia will be able to relate to the stories, so there will be takeaways that are personal,” says Nabil.
Come Home And Eat utilises storytelling methods like monologues, satire, multimedia and movement. There is also audience participation, which will serve as a tool of self-reflection and solidarity.
“This participation is safe, voluntary and done from a distance, in that we won’t put audiences on the spot. I am of the belief that younger audiences like millennials and Gen Zs who grew up with phones, screens and the Internet, take in and respond to information differently from the previous generations. This has been amplified by the pandemic,” says Wong.
“The way that Come Home And Eat is presented targets these ‘digital natives’ who often have shorter attention spans and the ability to process multiple stimuli at once, hence the newsfeed approach we adopted – not unlike scrolling through a newsfeed on Facebook. I hope this production prompts us to ask ourselves what our own stories are behind our relationships with the food we eat, crave, miss and make. There’s almost always aspiration and/or anxiety in there somewhere,” he concludes.
Come Home And Eat will be playing at Pentas 2, KLPac, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan in Kuala Lumpur from April 13-16. For mature audiences only. More info here.