“The ability to have someone tell your story is so important. It says you know I was here.” Maya Angelou
It’s a piece of musical theatre about having hope. It’s an urgent work which speaks of age old global phenomenons such as migration and life as a persecuted refugee. The term refugee has been part of the western world’s history since the persecution of protestants in France in 1540, the term migrant is biblical. The book upon which the show is based, an account of the life of Somali Asad Abdullahi who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was eight years old in Mogadishu during the civil war and who then fled across Africa as a boy and young man as a consequence, is in some ways so traumatic a read that the stage work has to offer more positivity than the title infers.
|A Man of Good Hope credit Alastair Muir|
In the Isango Ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May, with a little help from Stephen Daldry, the book, by Jonny Steinberg, has found the perfect stage partners. One feels that no other company could do this work justice, nor tease out its warmer qualities and social and ethnic contradictions and subdivisions. The company’s core group all hail from the townships surrounding Cape Town, in some of which Asad experienced xenophobic violence and prejudice. In a New York Times article some of the company admitted that this part especially, as well as the rest of book, initially left them feeling “ambivalent” about adapting the work to stage as they understood “some of the issues the book explores”. Perhaps to give voice to those they feel are missing, the company have added a chorus where the South Africans are able to sing about the pressures about living in a post apartheid South African society that is vastly unequal to reflect upon Asad’s experience of racism. The chorus also explores Steinberg’s assertion that citizenship is linked to xenophobia: an important moment blurring the lines between victors and victims.
AMOGH is a development from Isango’s more traditional way of working, which usually involves adaptations of classical works to highlight contemporary South African problems. Here, the company comes face-to-face with recent history. The company retain their aesthetic style though: they combine scenic wit with operatic arias accompanied by marimbas which offer at times a hauntingly plaintive mournfulness or harmonic eruption of joy. It is Steinberg’s fourth book. It is so vast, the trials and tragedies of Asad’s journey to South Africa (the promised land), so repetitive in their outcome and yet so detailed and different in their enactment that it would be impossible to commit all to stage. What the creative team has to do is to give a fleeting sense of Asad’s struggle, his innocent and flawed expectations of South Africa and his deep need to care for others, whilst reflecting his own reservations about his story and the publication of a book that economically, has eased his life. It would also be an obvious choice to indulge the audience in the lonely horrors of some Asad’s early experiences, but the company, thank goodness, refuse.
Instead, they play with the notions of narrative voice and protagonist. To reflect that anyone can be an Asad and have a story like his, the character is performed (with gusto) by cast members Siphosethu Juta/ Phielo Makitle (who share the role of Asad as a young boy), Zoleka Mpotsha and Ayanda Tikolo. Jonny Steinberg too, is also several people. He is a man to begin with (Mandisi Dyantyis who also conducts) who then becomes a chorus, who then becomes a man again. There might be many more Asads and many more Steinbergs until we can eradicate persecution is perhaps the warning. But the decision to have Steinberg’s voice so prominent and, at times, intrusive, never lets the audience forget the fractious difference between author and subject, the narrator and the narrated, journalist and material. How hard it must be to have such questions asked sometimes so harshly about difficult times of one’s life from someone who has lived with vastly more privilege, might be one point. We can’t forget the privilege of the narrator and questioner. But when the chorus take on the role of the narrator and ask the questions, it is South Africa that asks, South Africa that faces itself in the mirror. There are other internal journeys one realises and in keeping with the experience of reading the book, the audience warm both to Steinberg and Asad as the story progresses. Just as Asad and Steinberg warm to each other during their interviews.
But this is far from a pleasing moralising sentimental show. Audiences cannot cosy up and think that this is happening far away, it is a reflection, absolutely, of Brexit and recent xenophobic trends in the UK. It’s also a document about human failings and frailties. Little Asad actually has it all sussed. Phielo Makitle (on press night) plays him with an assurance and innocence which one sees is slightly dampened, though not lost, as Asad ages. Yet even as he grows, experiencing more humiliation and rejection than acceptance and kindness, he manages to retain his ability to “see” others. It is a small yet big moment when Asad catches sight of Sadicya, the woman he will eventually settle with. He does not “see” her clan, one that is feared and ostracised in Somali society, he does not care that she is rejected because of it and that by taking her in, he endangers himself. He only sees she is in need. In the book, Steinberg brings in all sorts of western ideas about why Asad chooses to take her on: for example, Sadicya reminds him of Yindy, the woman he cared for when he was nine and therefore, Steinberg seems to argue, choosing Sadicya enables him to remain a child with childish notions. The stage version solves any need for explanations by having Sadicya and Yindy both played by Pauline Malefane. No one is asked to judge, one can understand Asad’s motive as humane if one wishes.
The measure of this vastly complicated work, which tries to shine a light on the intricacies of clan, persecution, survival, identity, state oppression and cultural practises like Female Genital Mutilation, is not how well it conveys all that has happened to Asad and his experiences of death and at times, severe loneliness, but how it shows how Asad handles such trials. With hope. Sometimes the hope is derided by a chorus of voices and then explained: Asad’s innocent view of America for example. But it is also made clear that Asad chooses, despite his experiences, to do good.
Before I saw the performance and having read the book, I had some questions which I put to the company and was told that they would be best answered by watching the show. The questions were: What role does the authorial voice take in the show? Do those taking part have similar experiences to Asad and how this may influence their performance and make them reflect on their histories and own positions as citizens in South Africa? How might the show explore the link that Steinberg seems to make between citizenship and xenophobia? Perhaps these questions were answered. My final one, whether Asad has been involved with the show and how he may feel about it, is a harder one to answer though. As in the book, his answer to the meaning he gets from the portrayal of his life still seems to be the same: that it is “a series of losses.” Which means that one is left to conclude what choices does Asad have when he is contemplating his life through a book and a stage version of that book? For him, the position must be a strange one. He is both the actor and the audience to the book and the musical. The question is, how might seeing one’s life acted or written out change one’s perception of it? How can Asad see his life as a series of losses when others see it as a story full of hope? Is it because Asad experienced the full weight and volume of his life, something no one else can touch? Or is it that Asad can still choose, as others have done, to see the hope and goodness in his life? Let’s hope Asad can do the latter: if there is one thing that no one can take from a person (no matter the narrative viewpoint) it is the ability to form an individual perception of one’s experiences (and so perception of others) therefore shaping the internal landscape and values of one’s own world.
A Man of Good Hope is on the Young Vic until 12th November