A Man of Good Hope, based on the eponymous novel by Jonny Steinberg and presented by the Isango Ensemble in a co-production with the Young Vic, Royal Opera, Repons Foundation, BAM and Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, is the story of a real life Somali named Asad Abdullah. When Steinberg began to interview him in South Africa he assumed his story would only form a small part of a larger study that would take in multiple times, people and places. As he got to know him more, however, and being particularly taken with one simple gesture that he made on their second meeting, he decided that the whole book should be about him. This operatic adaptation, directed by Mark Dornford-May, also focuses on the one man but, like the novel, captures whole swathes of Somali, Ethiopian and South African history in the process.
Through narration, dialogue and music, it takes us through Asad’s frequently tragic life. In 1991, during the ongoing Somali civil war, his mother is killed and his other family members go in different directions. Left alone at the age of eight, he makes contact with his cousin Yindy but ends up looking after her when a shooting leaves her disabled. They manage to make it to a refugee camp in Kenya, but only Yindy is issued with a pass to go to America. She reluctantly leaves him, thinking she will be better placed to secure his passage out from the United States. However, when she subsequently informs him to make contact with her family as she can get them all out, these other members refuse to take him with them as they think he is nothing to do with him.
Alone once more, Asad travels to Ethiopia and starts to make a little money, and then he meets Foosiya who he marries. He travels to South Africa, planning to send for his wife (and child) when he has made his fortune there. However, although he is successful in setting up a shop, he finds that a series of expenses (of which sending money to his wife is only one) drains his finances. Foosiya does join him but soon leaves again, with him never to see her again as racial tensions, violence and robberies leave him with nothing. When everything feels at its lowest ebb he meets Sadicya, who is considered an ‘untouchable’ within the Somali social system, and does a little to heal prejudice by embracing her. He eventually marries her and, after many years of waiting, finally acquires the papers that will enable him to start a new life with her and her child in America. However, much as the music and dancing give moments of the evening a celebratory feel, and much as we may wish to see his story as a triumph of hope over adversity, Asad’s final words to the novelist (who is portrayed as a character) emphasise that it is really nothing of the sort. When he reminds us of how many friends and family he has lost, and that his own story only begins to touch on the sorrow felt in everyone else’s lives, we are left with a bitter taste in the mouth as we experience the most poignant of endings.
The piece does qualify as an opera because if that term can be applied to works as different in style as those of Handel and Shostakovich, then it can cover this too. Nevertheless, it is more important to take the piece on its own terms than to worry about the correct definition for it. About two thirds of it comprises narration and dialogue, and one third music. All this is generated by the performers who sing, dance and play instruments, with seven large marimbas dominating the sides of a stage that consists of wooden floorboards. However, as an antidote to anyone who thinks they are simply experiencing ‘the sounds of Africa’, one sequence in which Asad and others travel through a series of countries clearly delineates the music and rhythms of each of these.
Many of the scenes are effectively illustrated with dance and movement so that the coming together, wedding and first night of Asad and Foosiya is revealed by others swirling around them with sheets, which they then wrap around themselves. It is particularly interesting to see how moving such visual illustrations can be. The sequence in which Asad tries to get to South Africa, and has barriers put up at every border, is poignant as we see him have to leave others behind who are not lucky, or rich, enough to be approved for passage. A lot of the thoughts expressed concerning belonging or having no-one seem particularly pertinent today. One line, in particular, seems to parody Theresa May’s recent assertion that ‘a citizen of the world’ is ‘a citizen of nowhere’, although it may not necessarily have been a last minute insertion. Similarly, especially with America being so much in the news at the moment, we may laugh when we hear Asad and others see it as place with no guns, gangs or poor people. However, with the poverty and fear that they face on a daily basis it is understandable why they should hold such views.
Gender relations are played out well, with the women often forming a chorus around the female protagonist to support her point of view, and vice versa with the men. Race relations are also explored in thought provoking ways. We may see the small-time entrepreneur in Addis Ababa, who mediates between the Ethiopians and Somalis who do not speak each other’s language for a ten per cent fee, as harmless enough, but other aspects are far more sinister. A clash between the South Africans and Somalis, in which one side feels totally exploited while the other believes it has acted generously, is sad enough because it reveals the level of disconnection. However, we also witness violence and killings, and prejudice and discrimination between the Somali people as well as across the nationalities. From amongst the strong cast the four actors playing Asad at different times in his life – Phielo Makitle (rotating with Siphosethu Juta), Zoleka Mpotsha, Luvo Tamba and Ayanda Tikolo – stand out, while amidst the many impressive vocal performances the sound of Pauline Malefane as Sadicya and Yindy proves particularly beautiful.