In view of the terrible events in Christchurch last Friday, Saturday night was a deeply poignant occasion to attend a story of migrants and their persecution. This miraculous story was staged by Isango Ensemble and Young Vic at ASB Waterfront Theatre as part of the Auckland Arts Festival 2019. This company of actors, singers and dancers come from Cape Town, South Africa and is a joint venture with London’s Young Vic Theatre. The performers are drawn from the townships surrounding Cape Town and often focus on creating performances by re-imagining Western theatre and opera classics. This time, however, they presented a very African story.
Based on the book A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg, the story is based on Asad a young Somalian refugee. The book was adapted for the stage by Isango Ensemble’s creative team and starts with Asad’s mother being shot dead in front of him by Somalian militia. Asad then grows up through a life of an African migrant, journeying thousands of miles and eventually settling in a South African township. His life story is enacted by three actors, the youngest Siphosethu Hintsho, maybe all of 13 years old of whom is an extraordinarily precocious talent as a singer, dancer and communicator.
The music and dance was exuberant and uplifting and swung the audience through the journey with touches of warmth and humour.
Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis led the beginning of the performance including a kind of instrumental overture on a set of giant marimba on either side of the steeply raked stage. The story is enacted through African gospel-style harmonies, narration and snippets of solo songs, weaving a tough picture of survival by the twenty-two member company. Ironically the audience was almost entirely white New Zealand faces, one wonders why this event doesn’t attract an audience more representative of Auckland’s Māori and Pacifica population. The music and dance was exuberant and uplifting and swung the audience through the journey with touches of warmth and humour.
Many a theatre company could take a leaf from this company’s book. The staging wasn’t sophisticated but created by simple and imaginative means and good ensemble shaping. Props were hand-made and rudimentary but brought a touch of humour and humanity. And the performance was peppered by a brilliant soundscape created by the performers - menacing mouth clicks to build tension, cricket song, women trilling for the ring of a mobile phone. As one could expect from a South African production, rhythm was a strong feature of the night from the pummeling of feet on raked boards, to the beating on rubbish bin drums to the shocking punctuation of wood on wood for a gunshot.
Singing was full-throated and in part operatic, especially Cikizwa Rolomana as Asad’s wife and from the women ensemble. Also some wonderful bass notes from the older Asad Ayanda Siyabonga Tikolo. Other soloists had moments of vocal roughness and approximate intonation.
But polish wasn’t required or wanted, it was the truth and genuineness that was the powerful currency.
There were confronting scenes - female circumcision, the dark vein of violence and a child preyed upon in refugee camps. Much of the delivery was directed straight to their audience, nailing home messages of the evils of apartheid, and the mass killing of Somalians by the poor black populations of the townships.
Strong messages were delivered with cries of “Amandla” and fists punching the air. To cap off the night, it would have been wonderful to have a chorus raised in a united voice. However ending this performance was the quiet statement that this was just one man’s story, there are 20,000 more Somalians in townships around Cape Town alone.
The evening began with a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of Christchurch. And perhaps this compelling and genuine tale from the Isango Ensemble served to remind New Zealand to look at our own migrant populations with more compassion.