How to describe a show like A Man of Good Hope? Strictly speaking, this South African import from Isango Ensemble and the Young Vic is a play with music. But “a play with opera” would be more specifically accurate. And in some ways, this joyously staged adaptation of Jonny Steinberg’s non-joyful true story of one Somali refugee isn’t quite what one expects of a play, either, in the usual Western sense.
Call it a buoyant series of living dioramas if you will. Regardless, it’s enthralling on its own terms, a wrenching personal story as well as strikingly resonant with the nativism resurgent in today’s Europe and America. The young Somali boy Asad Abdullahi sees his mother shot in front of him. Bounced from place to place, he’s taken in by a relative here, a relative there. He becomes especially close to one cousin who becomes a surrogate mother but leaves him behind when she gets immigration papers for the United States.
After crossing multiple harsh borders, experiential as well as national, Asad gets to South Africa, a kind of Promised Land where a relative helps him set up as a shopkeeper in a Johannesburg township. But there he and his young wife and son are beset by violent anti-immigrant hostility. She flees with the baby, he stays.
Steinberg spent two years interviewing Asad, sitting in a car so the mistrustful immigrant could spy threats from any direction. The story leaves off as Asad and his new family secure their own immigrant visas to the U.S., where, so the show’s most ironic song goes, “it’s always safe,” “there are no guns,” and, most appealingly to the little boy who still lives inside Asad, “they have the biggest trucks.”
Four actors play Asad through four stages of his life starting from boyhood. The third, Luvo Tamba, plays him as a young man, the most extensive and compelling turn. But each is richly drawn and focused in his (or her) own way, and so is the large cast as a whole. The players take on multiple roles as Asad’s epic takes shape: friends, scattered relatives and clansfolk, people from other clans, different immigrant groups, different countries. They double as musicians, too, playing an orchestra of marimbas and drums, and as dancers. In terms of spectacle, using the word “extravaganza” hardly seems a stretch.
The stylized presentation reinforces the operatic quality imparted by the wonderful voices, from Asad’s caretaker cousin’s platinum soprano and his first wife’s amazing phone-ringing trill to Tamba’s woodsy baritone and fully-adult Asad’s rich basso. Indeed there are superb voices throughout the cast. Heard individually, these suggest Western opera. In harmony, accompanying the leads or expressing a scene’s gut feeling whether in words or keening sounds, they form a gorgeous mosaic of a chorus.
That such artistic beauty can arise from such a sad and harrowing story as Asad’s, and not only arise but travel the world to inspire audiences on distant continents, is one positive message the show imparts. Another is the strength that gives a person the possibility – combined with luck, of course – to survive as Asad has. But pain and woe drive the tale itself, a saga of strife and division, tribalism and violence, as well as love and caring. Attacks on “the other,” whether immigrants or a rival group at home, follow Asad from country to country. In one of the show’s most emblematic moments, not violent (for once) but loaded with meaning, his friends recoil when he sticks to his principles and accepts a cup of tea from a woman who belongs to what they see as an inferior clan.
As Steinberg points out in the liner notes, when he finally finished the book, Asad refused to read it. Revisiting the horrors of his past is too painful for him; he wants to look only forward. We, on the other hand, can be grateful it inspired this show and gave it the momentum to cross oceans to reach people outside Africa. Along with its artistic merit and spirited energy, it’s a reminder of the vigilance needed to oppose the everpresent forces of tribalism at the root of so much insensitivity, hatred, and violence.
A Man of Good Hope is at BAM for a five-day run through Feb. 19.