One man’s tale of displacement, loss and resilience is brought to life through choral harmonies, dance and an infectious ensemble performance.
A Man of Good Hope follows the life of Asad Abdullahi, a Somali boy orphaned by civil war, contextualised in the play as the modern payoff of European colonialists arbitrarily carving the continent’s myriad clans and kingdoms into a series of nation states.
The young Asad (played with great energy and charisma by 12-year-old actor Siphosethu Hintsho) makes his way to Kenya, then Ethiopia, then South Africa, finding family then losing it, building a life and then watching it disappear, and always, always hustling, whether as a translator, shopkeeper or delivery driver.
But this is an African story that is neither poverty nor inspiration porn. Asad, later played by Thadolwethu Mzembe as a young man, is industrious and savvy, but not always virtuous beyond reproach – he’s just trying to get by, and get ahead without dwelling on the trauma and loss that lies behind him. And expectations of a Hollywood-style rags to riches resolution are tempered early on when Asad and a relative talk of one day emigrating to America. Their dreams of a faraway utopia are undercut by wide-eyed talk of a place with “no guns”, “no gangs”, universal healthcare and economic opportunity, its naivety laboured for comic effect.
Instead we watch Asad doing his best in an episodic journey to adulthood, as issues like apartheid, war, poverty and female genital mutilation make appearances in a way that might feel contrived were it not a true story, based on a book by white South African author Jonny Steinberg (who paid the still-hustling real life Abdullahi £400 to share his story, a skewed power dynamic that is not fully addressed in the story).
Despite moment of darkness, the storytelling is almost always made buoyant thanks to the voices and choreography of the barefoot, casually-dressed Isango Ensemble. Led by music director Mandisi Dyantyis, the group’s members bring each scene and setting to life with sound effects and music tapped an stamped out with xylophones and improvised percussion and props made of bins, old door frames and cardboard boxes. A particularly effective moment comes during Asad’s great migration across the continent, as the group changes language, movement and musical style to reflect each country he passes through.
For an Australian audience, the story of an refugee that neither fits into the tabloid’s gang panic mold, nor the ‘Good Refugee’ model of exemplary achievement we tend to demand before truly accepting new migrants as one of us, has great value. But, as the play itself drives home, it is also just one man’s story, and we need to hear more of them.
A Man Of Good Hope was performed at Royalty Theatre on Tuesday, March 5
A Man Of Good Hope
Tuesday, March 5 – Monday, March 11