This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
When politicians and the media talk about migration, it is usually in terms of numbers, but this new work by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble reminds us that those numbers are made up of individuals. It tells the story of one boy/man’s 20-year odyssey across a troubled terrain in search of a better tomorrow.
In 1991, at the age of eight, Asad Abdullah, from a proud Somali family, looks on as his mother is shot dead. The orphan’s journey begins, traversing post-colonial Africa, a continent crippled by conflicts of all kinds, eventually meeting Jonny Steinberg in Cape Town in 2011. The show is adapted from Steinberg’s book of Asad’s true story,
When Mandisi Dyantyis opens the show dancing centre stage while conducting musicians placed either side of him, we are given clear notice that orthodoxy will play little part in what follows. The music he conducts is a thrilling fusion of styles, traditional African sounds, rhythms and melodies blending with European opera. Perhaps it should not work, but it does and the only complaint about the music is that there is not enough of it. Exciting movement and choral singing provide an exhilarating spectacle that cannot be matched by rather static spoken scenes.
The precocious boy Asad (played at this performance by Phielo Makitle) grows into a resourceful youth (Zoleka Mpotsha), a budding entrepreneur (Luvo Tamba) and, finally, the embittered man (Ayanda Tikolo), looking older than his 28 years, who meets Steinberg. White hats pass between the four actors like batons. Asad’s journey takes him through Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The doors of admission to America are slammed in his face cruelly and he sees South Africa as the new land of opportunity. He grapples with languages, finds a wife (Busisiwe Ngejane), fathers a child and survives on the strength of his ingenuity.
Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the thrust stage is frequently awash with colour and shaking with vibrant energy, but the show does not quite overcome a problem common to most “road” stories in that it is episodic. New characters emerge regularly, only to disappear before we have got to know them, leaving Asad as the one character to be fleshed out fully. The creators’ political agenda is in plain view; they describe a South Africa in which the promises of Nelson Mandela have all been broken by his successors, where lawlessness and corruption are rife and where different forms of racism have survived the demise of Apartheid.
The journey ends with Asad disillusioned and ready to abandon Africa, making the show’s title seem entirely ironic. Yet, conversely, the originality and vitality that run through its veins are uplifting enough to leave a feeling that hope for the future may not be so badly misplaced.
Performance date: 13 October 2016