While impossible to wrap one’s mind around extremes of worldwide refugee/immigrant suffering, the experience of a single man hits home with unerring aim. When A Man of Good Hope was scheduled at BAM, President Obama was still in the White House. Little did its host or creators realize how much more the play’s powerful message would resonate in what has become a toxic atmosphere of isolationism and bigotry.
The production can arguably be called a people’s opera – which is to say it features operatic arias in tandem with traditional African music and pop. Indigenous percussive movement, freewheeling staging, and costumes made of street clothes with African touches, give it the aura of being put on by itinerant players which couldn’t be further from the truth. Actors sing (in several languages), rhythmically dance, and play seven marimbas – mallet-struck wooden xylophones, occupying both sides of a raked stage surrounded by corrugated metal. The only scenery/props are door frames, cardboard guns, placards, and boxes. No more is needed.
As told to South African writer and scholar, Jonny Steinberg (a white man) over the course of a year, A Man of Good Hope (after his 2015 book) dramatizes the inadvertent pilgrimage of Somali Asad Abdullahi. Then living in a Cape Town shanty, its protagonist was cobbling together a living making deliveries when Steinberg paid for his subject’s time in order to make it feasible for him to be off the hustle. Every interview was conducted in the author’s western car with clear view of oncoming trouble. Abdullahi had learned his lesson well. (By the end of the process, he and his family were admitted to The United States – after which, alas, we know nothing.)
At eight years-old, Abdullahi witnessed the murder of his mother, was put on a truck by his uncle and then separated from an accompanying cousin when the 15 year-old was conscripted into the army. Shown kindness by a tea seller, at nine, he found himself nursing (feeding, wiping, washing) her through a gunshot wound to the leg. She would eventually abandon the boy.
As he (often unwillingly) moved from Somalia through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Johannesburg, the boy grew up facing poverty, xenophobia, repeated violence by both a diverse roster of rebels and his “own” people (the Somali “clan” system is omnipresent), married, had a child, divorced, and married again.
Still, this is not a piece made up solely of cruelty and racism. Our hero perseveres. Every village presents a fresh start, every human connection a new opportunity to work with others. He’s hard working and resourceful. There are hopeful welcomes, reunions, and successes along the way. Nothing is taken for granted, yet the character himself is not portrayed as flawless. Pragmatically Abdullahi put one foot in front of the other, never becoming like those who made his life serially horrific. Somewhere over the horizon was America where it’s always safe, there are no guns, everyone is rich…
A Man of Good Hope is a testament to human spirit and the power of brotherhood almost as much as an historical warning against discrimination, violence, and utter lack of compassion. It’s illuminating, entertaining, and exhausting. (It could successfully be cut by at least half an hour.) What ultimately keeps us (the audience) from being enveloped by fatalism is likely musicalization – often buoyant, pulsing tunes, empathetic vocals, and gestural dance. Still, if one prays or has an inclination to political action, this offers ample reason to do both.
The Isango Ensemble – all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, is terrific. Director Mark Dornford-May does a wonderful job of making ebb and flow seem organic; keeping energy high, focus complete. Drama is visceral. Hope is happy. My single caveat is that it’s difficult to understand a great many of the strong accents; we get the gist, but particulars are too often lost. (Speech & Dialogue – Lesley Nott Manim)
Abdullahi is played by the appealing Siphosethu Juta as an eight year-old, Zoleka Mpotsha as a youth, Luvo Tamba as a young man and Ayanda Tikolo as a grown man. The succession is seamless. Busiswe Ngejane and Pauline Malefane have particularly beautiful voices. Mandisi Dyantyis is a marvelously visual conductor.
Photos of The Company by Rebecca Greenfield
A Man of Good Hope
Based on the book by Jonny Steinberg
Isango Ensemble/Young Vic
Directed by Mark Dornford-May
Music- Mandisi Dyantyis with the Ensemble
Movement- Lungelo Ngamiana
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Through February 19, 2017