Saturday, July 13, 2024

Lose to Win

Lose to Win
Writer: Mandela Mathia
Director: Jessica Arthur
Belvoir St Theatre
April 25 – May 19, 2024

The solo performance format can place weighty demands on an actor, but Mandela Mathia breezily rises to the challenge, telling his arresting life story with warmth, charm and humour.

Before Mathia’s entrance, musician Yacou Mbaye sets up an instant sense of Africa with some lively drumming. Mathia enters singing an African song against an attractive set (Keerthi Subramanyam) made of open weave netting reminiscent of African fishing nets and artefacts.

His story covers a chequered combination of events – a precarious childhood, a spell as an adolescent entrepreneur and forced gang involvement to survive, culminating in his acting career in Australia. It is not, however, all gloomy fare – Mathia is able to inject some fun and humour in his delivery, such as suggesting two Hollywood heavyweights to play his parents in the event of his life story being made into a movie – this raises an appreciative chuckle.

Mathia, born during the Sudanese civil war, was left an orphan at the age of seven. He wistfully yearns for the things he could have learned from having a father – such as how to build a house, make a brick, or learning to dance.

The children move in with their adoptive mother, Joska, a woman who had lost her own children during a raid on her village. Mathia became a youthful entrepreneur, selling cigarettes and cleaning shoes, earning enough for food and education.

By now Mathia and his family were beginning to dream of a life with more prospects – they had heard of life in countries like America, Canada, Australia. A cousin in Australia helped them process their application to immigrate to Australia – life was looking up!

While waiting for their immigration to be approved the family moved to Egypt where Mathia discovers computers, hip hop and the gang life associated with it. Mathia and his cousin found themselves forcibly being pushed into gang life. To protect themselves they joined a gang called the Lost Boys – here Mathia mimes violent fighting moves in the style of crump dance, the strobe lighting (Kate Baldwin) freeze-framing each action.

His decision to join the Lost Boys breaks Joska’s heart and she takes him to task for his loss of traditional values. It has a sobering effect on him.

Immigration comes through and Mathia is entranced by his first experiences of Australia, but despite his enthusiasm for his new country, it’s not all plain sailing being Sudanese in Australia – a few bad apples were muddying the water. In 2012 attacks in Melbourne by immigrant gangs subsequently led, much to Mathia’s sorrow, to the demonisation of the entire Sudanese community.

It’s a dark moment. Mathia recites a poetic soliloquy, amalgamating his experiences of hunger, tormenting memories, lost loved ones, and forced criminality. The effect is harrowing, but he finishes with a sense that in his new home, he is bloodied but not beaten and ready to move forward.

Mathia forgets about playing soccer for Australia as he initially planned and decides to be an artist – an actor. He is accepted into NIDA and in 2018 has his first mainstage role at Belvoir Street Theatre.

Then the smiles and humour return and in telling his story he says, “it kind of helps give young people, everyone, the hope to reinvent themselves and feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel”.

And indeed it does. The light brightens, Yacou strikes up an infectious beat on his drum and Mathia closes his performance with a joyful dance.

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