Review: Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE, now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a limited engagement as part of the theater’s WorldStage programming, pays homage to human resilience. Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the production incorporates the South African Isango Ensemble’s signature use of music and dance to tell the story of young Somali refugee Asad Abdullahi. After witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of the Somali militia, Asad travels across the continent in the hopes that he will survive and make a better life for himself. The play’s title comes from Jonny Steinberg’s book of the same name, but it is particularly poignant to watch the story unfold onstage. 

Isango Ensemble cleverly incorporates the music and dance from each part of Africa through which Asad passes, which gives the production a unique energy. It also gives the staging a strong sense of place and allows audiences to contemplate just how far Asad has travelled. Because the production portrays Asad at various stages of his life, the role is divided into three parts: Siphosethu Hintsho plays Asad as a boy, Ayanda Tikolo plays Asad 1, and Thandolwethu Mzembe plays Asad 2. Not only does the division of the role enable audiences to see Asad literally mature before our eyes, but it also provides that sense of hopeful inevitability of his survival. Asad has many moments throughout his journey where he lives on the brink and comes face-to-face with his mortality, but the fact that we see him through to adulthood underscores the fact that he was able to make a life for himself despite the odds. Throughout his journey across Africa, Asad has the singular goal of making his way to the promised land. For Asad, the possibility of gaining entry to the United States drives him forward. This production has toured around the world, and it was particularly interesting to watch it here in the States (especially when Asad extols the virtues of this country as one with no guns and where everything is free). And yet relative to the horrors that Asad faces in A MAN OF GOOD HOPE, American audiences should be reminded of the freedoms that we are afforded here. 

Asad’s story is a remarkable reflection of the human spirit and the will to survive, but Isango Ensemble’s storytelling methods are what make the production truly special. The production skillfully incorporates stellar vocals and percussion, lending the entire show an innate musicality. Music director Mandisi Dyantysis and choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana’s work ensures that the show has a lively energy throughout, even through the many bleak moments of the narrative. The ensemble’s vocals are incredibly operatic at points, which is a real feat. 

A MAN OF GOOD HOPE reflects the resiliency and creativity of the human spirit at every turn, while giving audiences a taste of Isango Ensemble’s original methods of theatrical storytelling. 

Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE plays a limited engagement at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater through October 13. Tickets are $60-$90. Visit or call 312.595.5600.

Photo Credit: Keith Pattinson

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