Asad Abdullahi was eight years old when he left Somalia. His mother had been killed in front of him and his father was in hiding.
Yet to Mark Dornford-May, co-founder and artistic director of Isango Ensemble, Abdullahi's story is one of optimism and hope. “It's remarkable that he emerges from what's happened to him as a sane human being,” he says, “let alone a human being with such compassion.”
Originally released in book form by author Jonny Steinberg, A Man of Good Hope tells the story of Abdullahi's journey across Africa. Dornford-May has adapted the story for the stage.
As Abdullahi is depicted travelling along the east coast of the continent, the action is accompanied by music that reflects each location. Found materials like dustbins, oil drums and swimming pool pipes are repurposed alongside marimbas, and every one of the 25 cast members joins in. “We don't have a band so actors play all the instruments and do all the singing, all the dancing, all the acting.”
But this is no picaresque adventure – it's the story of a man’s resilience in the face of unremitting misfortune as he is beset by one disaster after another.
So much so that Abdullahi has never read the book. “After the first two or three pages he just said 'I can’t carry on with this' because it was so traumatic,” says Dornford-May. Abdullahi has given his blessing to the production, though he will never see it.
In the past, Isango Ensemble’s projects have largely celebrated the troupe’s home country. But A Man of Good Hope casts a critical eye on modern South Africa.
For Abdullahi, it was the promised land. He expected to find a place where he could escape the troubles that had plagued his journey. The reality he found was strikingly different.
The English-born Dornford-May, who has called the rainbow nation home for twenty years, had no such illusions when he arrived. “It’s a very complicated place but I don't think I could ever say that it is a land of opportunity,” he says after some reflection.
"I tend to agree with Asad in his description that it's one of the most violent countries in the world." He clearly recognises his adopted country in the book, though he doesn’t accept the account completely. “At times in the production we break away from the book, and actually there is a debate between the actors onstage saying 'I don't think that's right'. So hopefully it will give a fuller picture rather than an airbrushed picture of South Africa today.”