South Africa’s Isango Ensemble bringing ‘Hope’ to Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard
“It’s easy for people to think Africans can’t tell their own stories. This is an opportunity to tell a story the way we want to tell it,” says Isango’s co-music director Mandisi Dyantyis.
It’s been five years since South Africa’s Isango Ensemble played Chicago, wowing audiences with its widely acclaimed 2014 production of “The Magic Flute” at Chicago Shakespeare.
The ensemble returns to Shakespeare’s Navy Pier home for another all too brief residency, Oct. 4-13, with “A Man of Good Hope,” directed by Mike Dornford-May.
“Being back in a theater is always special,” said Mandisi Dyantyis, Isango’s co-music director. “It says people are enjoying you enough to bring you back.”
Theatergoers can expect another exhilarating experience that will draw heavily from South Africa’s musical traditions, but “A Man of Good Hope” also represents a departure from Isango’s usual reimaginations of classic works.
‘A Man of Good Hope’
When: Oct. 4-13
Where: Isango Ensemble at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand
The play is based on a recent book of the same name, by South African journalist Jonny Steinberg. Described as part biography, part contemporary history, “A Man of Good Hope” tells the dark, yet ultimately resilient, true story of Asad Abdullahi, a Somali refugee.
As a young boy, Asad has his world ripped apart by civil war in Somalia, losing his parents and his home. He’s buffeted across the continent, handed off to distant relatives and complete strangers, never quite finding sanctuary or safe harbor. As an adult, Asad settles in South Africa, where he becomes the victim of a wave of xenophobic attacks targeting immigrants and refugees. (The situation grew so dangerous, in 2015 Somalia’s government evacuated its citizens from South Africa.)
Adapting the book forced Isango’s members to take a hard look at themselves and their countrymen.
“When we started working on it, we focused it on ourselves. We were literally looking within,” said Dyantyis. “Why is it so easy to target the ‘other?’”
A greater compassion for refugees emerged.
“Just remember that no one wants to leave home. Of course you want to visit and explore, but not leave. Something heavy is pushing them out,” Dyantyis said.
It was paramount for a troupe like Isango to tackle the material itself, for it not to be interpreted through the lens of outsiders, Dyantyis asserted.
“It’s easy for people to think Africans can’t tell their own stories,” he said. “This is an opportunity to tell a story the way we want to tell it.”
That included distilling elements of Africa’s history, particularly the mess created by colonialism, into the narrative surrounding Asad.
“It’s a normal misconception to think Africa’s always been like this. We use art to inform people who don’t have time to read all the books. So we read them and put the information into a form they can understand,” said Dyantyis. “A lot of misunderstandings come from ignorance. We need to take an active part to teach each other about the world.”
What the ensemble initially treated as a uniquely South African story took on global significance by the time the play debuted in 2016.
“There came Syria and then shortly after that there was America and Trump,” Dyantyis said, which broadened the show’s message and themes.
“We’re all facing the same problems. They’re just painted with a different coat of paint,” he said.
Despite its weighty subject matter, the show promises to be a rousing evening of theater. There’s the hope explicit in the title as well as Isango’s signature musical style, which uses vocals and a veritable orchestra of marimbas to create rhythm, add subtext, set moods and express emotion.
“We always think of music as another character,” Dyantyis said of Isango’s approach. “All the time you’re looking for easier ways to grab the imagination of the audience without boring them with detail. Our story moves from country to country and we can accomplish that in one song.”
Patty Wetli is a local freelance writer.