South African Isango Ensemble’s touring musical adaptation of A MAN OF GOOD HOPE comes to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, shining a light on the global refugee crisis
As we take our seats in Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater the 20-person cast of A MAN OF GOOD HOPE mills about the stage barefoot, seeming to chat amiably with each other, and sometimes looking out at us, shaking a limb here or there. Supersized marimba type instruments are set towards the back of the stage. A conductor emerges, actors assume posts near these instruments, and musicians seem to pull long low notes into the air following the conductor’s hands.
When the play ends and you are looking back—likely overcome with emotion as this writer was-- you too might think of those first long notes as the sound of Asad’s memory gathering energy to share his pain-wracked story. But much like his life, these slow low notes give way to melody, faster rhythm and joy as the ensemble members rapidly shift roles between musician and dancer. Their energy in this preamble is akin to an opera house’s large velvet curtain being drawn back to unveil the stage’s remarkable set.
But there is no magnificent opera set, nor is one needed, to tell this moving story of the refugee experience. Here, a door frame becomes a border, and then another border. A tarp becomes a wall. Boxes labeled with grocery items become a store and then when put on a plank become a roving truck selling wares. Like an opera, this production, is almost entirely sung.
This is Asad’s story—a character played by three actors who depict him as a young boy (Siphosethu Hintsho), a young man (Ayanda Tikolo) and the mature man who tells South African author Jonny Steinberg his story (Thandolwethu Mzembe). The ensemble—acting, dancing and singing throughout- becomes the many people he encounters along the way. We follow Asad running from violence since boyhood— moving from Somalia to South Africa with many stops in between, where he encounters ethnic hatreds and violence again and again.
An outsider to everyone outside his clan, Asad is targeted by gangsters- robbed and beaten, each time seeming more brutal than the time before. As we travel with him on his life’s journey we learn a lot about African culture past and present, and the hardships of living in a violent post-apartheid South Africa where the frustrated native- born react to their stagnant prospects by persecuting immigrants like Asad whom they feel steal their jobs.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater Shines a Light on the Global Refugee Crisis
Like the title, we are to think of Asad as being rooted in his optimism to find a better world. However, whenever he talked of going to America as a place without violence or guns there were cringe worthy titters from the audience. But to have seen this moving story about refugees in our more innocent time not so long ago when we would never have imagined refugee children being caged at our border!
For this writer though, it is the mature Asad’s moving refusals to heed his clan’s prohibition against marrying a member of an outsider caste that moves most. The stentorian baritone voice of Mzembe playing the mature Asad goes a long way to show us the power of this refusal to lose his sense of connection with others similarly facing persecution. If he were on a picket line the chant might be—This is what humanity looks like!
The cast, most from Capetown’s townships, moves as an admirably tight ensemble under the direction of Mark Dornford- May, also the work’s adaptor, in this writer’s view. High schooler Hintsho’s dancing and acting is especially captivating.
A Man of Good Hope is a top pick for anyone who admires the power of theater to teach and transport us into other worlds. Here we learn to walk not one but many thousands of miles in a refugee’s shoes.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Mandisi Dyantyis (Jonny), Thobile Jim Dyasi (Company), Nombongo Fatyi (Company), Thandokazi Fumba (Company), Zamile Gantana (Rooda), Siphosethu Hintsho (Asad as a boy), Nontsusa Louw (Yindy / Death), Zimkhitha Mathomane (Company), Zanele Mbatha (Asad’s mother), Sinethemba Mdena (Madoda), Zoleka Mpotsha (Yindy / Death), Thandolwethu Mzembe (Asad II), Siyanda Ncobo (Company), Sonwabo Ntshata (Company), Melikhaya Ntshuntshe (Visa Clerk, etc.), Cikizwa Rolomana (Foosiya), Masakana Sotayisi (Company), Luvo Tamba (SA Man), Ayanda Tikolo (Asad I), and Philani Xhaga (SA Man)
Joining director Mark Dornford-May
Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis,
Choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana,
Lighting Designer Manuel Manim,
Speech and Dialogue Coach Lesley Nott Manim,
Co-production Manager Andreas Ayling,
Relighter Jack Hathaway,
Company Manager Maris Sharp,
Co-production Manager Sandile Mgugunyeka,
Stage Manager Valencia Mgugunyeka, and
Chaperone Doreen Nondibano Hintsho.
Thru October 13, 2019
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
on Navy Pier
800 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611