24 February 2018, Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts.
I am finding it quite difficult to find the right words to reflect on this vibrant (though slightly too long) piece of theatre. The harsh realities and issues raised juxtaposed with the celebratory South African style in which it was presented meant that I left the theatre feeling equally and strangely uplifted and disconcerted at the same time. But I have spent quite a fair bit of tonight reading up on some of the issues addressed, which shows that works don’t always have to be hard hitting for a point to be made, for emotions to be stirred.
The 25-strong Isango Ensemble performed this part play, part opera, part musical. While the story was told in English, it cleverly communicated the many different African languages the character came across in his travels across the continent. It beat a rich mix of body percussion, marimbas, djembes, dustbin drums and showcased a wide range of African dance styles. The props were effectively raw and simple. The cast (beautifully of all shapes and sizes) seamlessly transitioned between movement, song, dance, props, words and sound effects. The stage was elevated and on an incline, designed with the intention to add a richer musical quality to the dancing (increased stomp resonation), but it also gave the actors more depth to work with – very clever. My favourite moments were when the three actors who played the main character at different ages appeared side by side. These wistful moments indicated both the passing of time and the lingering nature of memories.
The production is based on the biographical book of Somalian refugee Asad Abdullahi. According to the programme notes, author Jonny Steinberg interviewed Asad for over a year, and spent good time tracking down and mapping out his family genealogy. His journey highlights the plight of Africans living in poverty. Human trafficking, intense racism, gun violence and xenophobia, to name but a few issues. The character dreams of escaping to the US… where “there are no guns, there are no gangs, everyone is welcome”. The irony of this, particularly in light of the current toxic Trump era, got the audience laughing uncomfortably.
Apparently, after the book was published, Asad stopped reading beyond page 25 because it was too sad. Recently at work we’ve been running cross-generational programmes, and so have been particularly aware of how to sensitively speak to elderly about their past. As such, this particular paragraph in the programme struck a chord:
“Deep in our culture is the belief that unearthing memory is therapeutic. I think that Asad has taught me otherwise. He gave me the material to assemble a story about his personal history. But this story is not for him; it is for the edification of others.’