PRIZE FIGHTER - SYDNEY FESTIVAL
PRIZE FIGHTER, La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival production co-presented with Sydney Festival and Belvoir at Upstairs Belvoir, 6-22 January 2017. Photography by Brett Boardman - above: Margi Brown-Ash and Pacharo Mzembe; below: Gideon Mzembe and Zindzi Okenyo; below again: Kenneth Ransom and Pacharo Mzembe
A boxing ring in a gym devoted to the sport is the opening setting for Future D Fidel’s first play, Prize Fighter. In the sanctity of the place fighters go quietly about their business in various states of Zen-like concentration: skipping rope with precision and choreographed grace; sparring – jab jab feint, jab jab feint, over and over – methodically perfecting the tight control at the core of a successful boxer. The insistent thumping bass of music swells along with the blood flow and heartbeat of the athletes; it’s a simple, thrilling spectacle.
Prize Fighter is the somewhat autobiographical-biographical but essentially true story of a boy from Congo who escaped that country’s vicious and ongoing uncivil war, spent eight years in a Tanzanian refugee camp and – miraculously – was finally allowed to come to Australia. Thousands of boys like him didn’t make it past the unimaginable cruelty of being coerced into becoming “soldiers” by the same – slightly older – boys who had murdered and raped his family by way of persuasion.
Prize Fighter is a beautifully constructed and extraordinarily tight (70 minutes) of compelling drama. It seamlessly segues between man and boy, past and present, dreams and nightmares as Isa (Pacharo Mzembe) struggles with his early training – kill and do it any way you can – and the emotional discipline needed to progress in the boxing ring.
Taught the basics as a kid by his beloved elder brother Moses (Gideon Mzembe), Isa is spotted by formidable matriarch Luke, of Luke’s Gym (Margi Brown-Ash). However, early in the piece Isa’s basic dilemma becomes apparent. His hair trigger temper and well-learned murderous instincts make a sly attack on a ring opponent whose back is turned a disaster, rather than the necessity of the child soldier’s existence.
The diminutive Luke, her electric shock of white Don King-style hair quivering with outrage, rips strips off the contrite Isa as he towers over her, contrite as the child who lost his childhood long ago. It’s one of many jolting moments in a story that has no reference point or parallel in polite, white Australia.
Making dreadful sense of that time past, Thuso Lekwape is Kadogo, a giggling, fun-loving boy who handles a machete or AK47 with the insouciance most often associated with Legos or a cricket bat. Compelled to kill his own family in order to survive, he merrily passes on his skills to Isa while insisting that it is he – Kadogo – who is now family. And as their boss Matete (Gideon Mzembe again) has killed Isa’s father before raping and killing his sister, it’s easy to see how the affectionate Kadogo could appear to be a better option.
Supporting the main protagonists in a series of smaller but vital roles, Kenneth Ransom is Isa’s luckless father as well as an opponent and onlooker; Zindzi Okenyo is Isa’s sister, a gym colleague and a riveting vision of an extreme training regime.
The company is a cohesive unit, their virtually non-stop movement, from boxing scenes, to war and back again, choreographed and exquisitely handled by movement and fight director Nigel Poulton. After the opening night performance, audience member and actress Olivia Rose (about to open in Wayne Harrison’s Festival show Hakawati) made the interesting observation that, “boxing is sort of like acting, you have to listen and look and respond and react to the other person. It’s not a solo performance”. That’s vividly obvious in the show where the hypnotic forward momentum and intelligence of these intense performances never let up (director Todd MacDonald).
With Upstairs Belvoir transformed into a gym/boxing arena, the stark white square of the ring maintains the tight focus of the drama as the actors move around and on it. The action is punctuated by lighting and music/sound cues that hit as hard and effectively as Isa’s uppercuts (design: Bill Haycock, lighting: David Walters, composer/sound designer Felix Cross).
Future D Fidel is now on to his second play and is one of the most exciting emerging talents in Australian theatre. This production is thrilling and the subject matter, while tough and unforgiving as bullets, is equally so. Absolutely not to be missed.