A Life Composed of Sorrow Told with Uplifting Musicality
As a capacity crowd took their seats in the ASB Waterfront Theatre on opening night, the twenty-plus members of the Isango Ensemble could be seen milling, smiling and talking casually on the raked stage. The stage was surrounded on three sides by flats of corrugated iron, with the playing area flanked either side by rows of marimba, set pieces such as doors, buckets and other partially visible props, and a couple of drums made from rubbish bins. The informal atmosphere with which the performance began reinforced a sense of the communal and the blurring of the boundaries between the playing area and the spaces set aside for the musical instruments. When musical director Mandisi Dyantyis, barefoot and wearing tracksuit pants and t-shirt, takes to the playing area to conduct the cast in the opening choral number, the sense of informality and irreverence belies the talent and craft of the cast. As the singing slowly rises to enfold the audience, accompanied by marimba rhythms and with cast members swaying and dancing, it becomes evident that some of these voices have been trained in the Operatic tradition.
The production includes a curious mix of cultural elements, the use of African rhythms and instruments, the aesthetic simplicity of found objects and simple props of the Township Theatre tradition, coupled with Opera voices and harmonies. The cultural mix probably stems from the fact that Isango Ensemble is based in Cape Town. The company mainly draws its artists from the townships that surround the city, but Cape Town is also home to the Cape Town Opera, whose singing corps are mainly Black, and which, along with the University of Cape Town, has a long history of providing Opera training and opportunities for Black singers.
The opening musical number gives way to the opening scene where two chairs are placed centre stage representing a car. Here we meet the productions main protagonist, Asad Abdullahi (played as a man by Ayanda Siyabonga Tikolo), a Somali refugee who fled his home as a boy of eight, survived in a refugee camp in Kenya, became a businessman on the streets of Ethiopia, and then ran a shop and a delivery service in South Africa. He sits nervously in the car talking to the author Jonny Steinberg (Dyantysi) who assumes the role of narrator to provide some brief exposition to the unfolding drama. We learn that Jonny and Asad have been meeting for years and that Jonny is chronicling Asad’s journey. Asad always insists that they sit in the car to talk as he is scared that Jonny’s whiteness will make them targets for criminals. Noting Asad’s furtive glances at some young youths who appear to be approaching the car, Jonny explains to the audience that Asad’s fear ‘crossed a boundary and inhabited me’. Asad’s fear, he explains to the audience, ‘gave me the ink to write this book’.
A co-production between Isango Ensemble and the Young Vic, A Man of Good Hope is a musical adaptation of Steinberg’s book. With artistic direction by Mark Dornford-May, musical direction by Dyantyis and Pauline Malefane, and choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana, A Man of Good Hope tells Asads story of survival with musical complexity, the simplicity of physical movement, the joy of communal energy, and the political commitment to confront xenophobia.
According to United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. A Man of Good Hope chronicles the story of one of these indviduals and in this way helps to personalise and humanise an experience that can easily remain a ‘number’ that is difficult to comprehend. But in telling Asad’s story the production does not sentimentalise the issues and demonstrates that the xenophobia around migrants and refugees that we might often associate as ‘western’ response, is also prolific in the other parts of the world. The production takes an uncompromising look at the clan affiliations in Somalia, a network of social support but also the source of tensions and conflict. It mentions the poverty, crime and rape in the refugee camps, the horrendous practice of female circumcision, and eventually details the racism that immigrants and refugees experienced in South Africa culminating in the more than sixty deaths in race-riots in 2008.
In tracing Asad’s journey from Somalia to South Africa, the production deploys simple physicality to create scenes and sets, with cast members standing outside the playing area providing musical accompaniment or additional sound effects such as gunshots, the sounds of crickets, or birdsong. In one scene Asad as a young boy (Siphosethu Hintsho and Phielo Asakhe Makitle) is befriended by a truck driver in a desert town in Ethiopia. As they talk about a job offer, members of the cast help to ‘construct’ the truck with four members holding a door flat, four members becoming the ‘wheels’, two members placing bags as the ‘car seats’ and several others huddled as the ‘engine’. The simple physicality is effective and helps to bring the truck to life while at the same time highlighting the communal energy that sustains this production.
A Man of Good Hope is an inspiring and entertaining production that manages to bring together a wide mixture of cultural elements to tell the story of one man’s journey across borders, cultures and languages. The final scene returns to the writer Jonny who is meeting with Asad to chronicle his experiences in a book. When Jonny asks if he will read the book after it is published, Asad emphatically declares ‘no’. He explains that his life is composed of loss which he has little desire to read about in pages. But he also asks the author, who will write for all the other refugees whose lives remain undocumented and uncelebrated?
A Man of Good Hope. Based on the book by Jonny Steinberg. Directed by Mark Dornford-May. Music direction by Mandisi Dyantyis. Presented as part of the Auckland Arts Festival by the Young Vic and the Isango Ensemble. ASB Waterfront Theatre, 15-18 March, 2019.