This is a review of the original Griffin Theatre Company season of Since Ali Died. The show is returning to Griffin as part of Sydney Festival, where it will play from January 7 to 19. It will also have a short season at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from January 22 to 25.
There’s a gap in the Sydney performing arts scene. Experimental, adventurous and frequently political performance pieces that are not quite theatre often miss out on mainstage programming and the audiences and recognition that come with it. This becomes a problem on a structural level and not just an artistic one when you consider that these ‘outsider’ works are often made by those outside the white-dominated institution of the Australian arts.
Griffin Theatre Co has launched the Batch Festival to illuminate some of these critical new works that push the boundaries of theatre. These might be short one-person plays, blends of various performance styles or immersive, interactive solo experiences. If you’re bored by old plays by dead white men, then this is Sydney’s newest remedy.
A bright standout on the Festival’s First Night, Since Ali Died might just prove to be the gem of the Festival.
Rapper/poet Omar Musa’s new work places his hero and icon, Muhammad Ali, as a touchstone in the centre of the piece. From his interaction with Ali’s legacy spins the stories of Musa’s life, which hasn’t been the same since Ali died. He tells these as a mixture of song and spoken word, rap and banter: all considered, lyrical word choices driven by conscious care of how, exactly, each phrase will hit the ear of the audience.
There’s suburban violence; lost love; and, ever-present, Musa’s reckoning with the reality of living in a nation more comfortable with white supremacy than racial diversity, where a ‘fair go’ doesn’t seem to include everyone.
Musa’s poetry – in collections like 2017’s Millefiori – has always been full-throated, and it’s that fullness, that nimble yet immovable construction of imagery and worlds, that translates most successfully, fleshed out with clarity and care for the live stage.
Musa’s no stranger to performance poetry (audiences familiar with slam traditions dotted the opening night audience; like them, you can snap your fingers in appreciation of his livewire lines). His performance experience shows, and is an essential ingredient to the work’s success: his ease with himself and his material makes him magnetic.
Director Anthea Williams keeps a steady hand on the proceedings, and the show unfurls like the river imagery in Musa’s evocative script: borne on a central, unstoppable current, fluid and fluent in a style of its own making.