Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents Isango Ensemble’s effervescent musical memoir, A Man of Good Hope, as part of its Worldstage series, in a limited run through October 13. The 20-member company returns to CST from Cape Town, South Africa, to recount Somalian Asad Abdullahi’s escape from civil war in his home country, a trek tale taken from Jonny Steinberg’s book, adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May.
Ad the audience enters, the ensemble stands barefoot on the sparse stage, wearing jeans and sweats, hats and headscarves. Several move to a bank of marimbas at the back of the stage to launch the show with a murmur of music. The mixed-gender cast then switches places with increasing velocity to show that everyone in the cast can play.
Three actors play Asad, forced out of Mogadishu when soldiers arrive. The 10-year-old lands in Kenya at a UN refugee camp where water is scarce. While learning several languages, he also ingests pro-American propaganda, like there are no gangs or guns in the US, and that everyone has a doctor, a car and money.
Asad’s ability as a polyglot earns him a living as a translator as he moves south to connect with family members in South Africa, where he faces echoes of West Side Story: “stick to your own kind.” The script offers timely reminders about refugees, how easily they’re made and how cruelly they’re often treated. The sadly still-present practice of female genital mutilation is also exposed.
The singers are powerful and the harmonies uplifting in this African opera, as is the ebullient, indigenous dancing from each country Asad traverses on his own personal odyssey, which also includes stops in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia.
In a uniformly strong ensemble, Siphosethu Hintsho shines as the young version of the protagonist, full of wit, energy and pathos. Simple wooden doors serve as liminal spaces, from symbols of home, or lack thereof, to intimidating border crossings as well as trucks and busses full of folks seeking hope.
A Man of Good Hope runs about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission, through October 13 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $60-90 at 312-595-5600 and www.ChicagoShakes.com