'Man Of Good Hope' Tells A Somali Refugee's Story — In Song

Feb 16, 2017

There are over 21 million refugees around the world, according to the United Nations, and the musical A Man of Good Hope tells the story of one of them: Somali refugee Asad Abdullahi. Several years ago, author Jonny Steinberg interviewed Abdullahi in a rough and tumble township outside Cape Town, South Africa. He was working on a book about South African history.

"[Abdullahi] began to speak of his past in ways that were so extraordinarily visceral and powerful," Steinberg recalls. "His capacity for smell and touch and sounds to trigger memories was unlike any other human being I've met."

So the book, also called A Man of Good Hope, turned into Abdullahi's story. It's a huge, almost Dickensian tale that begins in Mogadishu when he was a little boy. "His mother was killed by militia in front of him," Steinberg says. "He fled south towards Kenya, was separated from his family and ended up living this quite lonely itinerant childhood, drifting from Nairobi into Ethiopia, always connected to adults, but very tenuously and very tactically. I think that he learned to be a very hard boy."

And a hard adult. He got married, made a dangerous trip to South Africa without immigration papers and found even more hardship there.

Mark Dornford-May is the artistic director of Cape Town's Isango Ensemble. He was given Steinberg's book as a Christmas present, and says, "I couldn't put it down. It's the most extraordinary tale. It's sort of a Greek epic in its proportions."

He had the idea to turn Abdullahi's story into a musical, but adapting it for the stage wasn't easy. Actress Pauline Malefane, who also co-founded the company, says they experimented, taking sections from the book and applying different theatrical techniques. "You can sing or you can speak or you can whatever," she says. "And then, you know, after 15 minutes, we'll all sit and we'll watch each other present whatever we've come up with." Collectively, the ensemble began to build a show.

The next challenge was the content. When Abdullahi arrives in South Africa, he encounters xenophobia and violence in the townships — townships that Malefane and other ensemble members once called home. "You cannot imagine how difficult it is, because the violence is carried out by us," Malefane says. "You know, we are South Africans."

After that, the question became: How do you pull off a narrative that takes place over more than two decades in more than half a dozen countries? By having four different actors play Abdullahi. Ayanda Tikolo plays him as an adult, when he has three businesses destroyed in the townships. Through it all, Tikolo says, Abdullahi never lost hope. "Asad is stubborn. He just doesn't want to give up ever. Whatever is happening to his life, he's just focusing his life forward."

At the end of the book and the musical, Abdullahi immigrates to the U.S. (He now lives in Kansas City.) But with recent events, author Jonny Steinberg says the story has taken on even more relevance. "I called Asad 24 hours after the travel ban and asked him what he was feeling and what he was thinking, and he was so bewildered and shattered," Steinberg says.

But Abdullahi has overcome so much in his life, Steinberg knows he'll be OK.

A Man of Good Hope is currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will tour internationally after that.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are over 65 million people in the world uprooted by conflict. "A Man Of Good Hope" is about one of them. That's the name of a book now adapted into a musical playing in New York. The story is of a Somali refugee who took a perilous journey across Africa. Here's Jeff Lunden with a history of an unlikely tale for the stage.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Several years ago, author Jonny Steinberg traveled to Blikkiesdorp, a rough-and-tumble township outside Cape Town. He had set up an interview with a Somali refugee named Asad Abdullahi for a book about South African history.

JONNY STEINBERG: He began to speak of his past in ways that was so extraordinarily visceral and powerful. His capacity for smell and touch and sound to trigger memories was unlike any other human being I've met.

LUNDEN: So the book became about Asad. It's a huge almost Dickensian tale beginning in Mogadishu when Asad was a little boy.

STEINBERG: His mother was killed by militia in front of him. He fled south towards Kenya, was separated from his family and ended up living this quite lonely, itinerant childhood, drifting from Nairobi into Ethiopia, always connected to adults but very tenuously and very tactically. I think that he learned to be a very hard boy.

LUNDEN: And a hard adult. He got married, made a dangerous trip to South Africa without immigration papers and found even more hardship there - doesn't sound like a musical, does it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Mark Dornford-May is the artistic director of Cape Town's Isango Ensemble. He was given the book as a Christmas present.

MARK DORNFORD-MAY: I couldn't put it down. It's the most extraordinary tale. It's sort of a Greek epic in its proportions.

LUNDEN: And he thought it could be a musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A MAN OF GOOD HOPE")

ZOLEKA MPOTSHA: (As Asad as a Youth, singing) The road is long. I will not break.

LUNDEN: But the road to taking such a big story and making it work on the stage was challenging, so the company experimented, says co-founder and actress Pauline Malefane. They would take sections from the book and apply different theatrical techniques.

PAULINE MALEFANE: You can sing, or you can speak, or you can whatever. And then, you know, after 15 minutes, we'll all sit, and we'll watch each other present whatever we've come up with.

LUNDEN: And collectively, the ensemble began to build the show. But they also struggled with much of the content because when Asad arrives in South Africa, he's exposed to xenophobia and violence in the townships.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A MAN OF GOOD HOPE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you know what they do? They steal our dogs. They take our women. They...

LUNDEN: And Pauline Malefane, like most of the ensemble, comes from those townships.

MALEFANE: You cannot imagine how difficult it is because the violence is carried out by us. You know, we are South Africans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "A MAN OF GOOD HOPE")

MPOTSHA: (As Asad as a Youth, singing) I have nowhere to go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible).

MPOTSHA: (As Asad as a Youth, singing) I don't have a place to sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible).

MPOTSHA: (As Asad as a Youth, singing) I don't have a place to eat.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: And there were other challenges. How do you pull off a narrative that takes place in more than half a dozen countries over more than two decades - by having four different actors play Asad. Ayanda Tikolo plays Asad as an adult when he has three businesses destroyed in the townships. Despite it all, Tikolo says Asad is truly a man of good hope.

AYANDA TIKOLO: Asad is stubborn. He just doesn't want to give up ever. Whatever is happening to his life, he's just focusing his life forward.

LUNDEN: At the end of the book and the musical, Asad is able to immigrate to the U.S. He now lives in Kansas City. But with recent events, the story has taken on even more relevance, says author Jonny Steinberg.

STEINBERG: I called Asad 24 hours after the travel ban and asked him what he was feeling and what he was thinking. And he was so bewildered and shattered.

LUNDEN: But he says Asad Abdullahi has overcome so much in his life. Steinberg knows he'll be OK. "A Man Of Good Hope" is currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will be touring internationally after that. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.