Arts / Refugee’s emotional knockout

Gideon Mzembe, left, and star Pacharo Mzembe in "Prize Fighter"...

Gideon Mzembe, left, and star Pacharo Mzembe in “Prize Fighter”… rave reviews from the Brisbane and Sydney Festivals. Photo by Brett Boardman

BOXING has always arguably been the most theatrical of all sports and now, in a mighty blow for theatre, The Q’s Stephen Pike is bringing in one of the most successful productions ever to emerge from Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre – it’s set in a boxing ring.

With rave reviews from the Brisbane and Sydney Festivals, Future D Fidel’s play “Prize Fighter” is now on a three-month national tour with a cast of six playing multiple roles, except for the central character performed by Pacharo Mzembe.

It’s theatre all right, but it’s also real life, based on the true story of Fidel, who fled the Congo as a child, lived in a Tanzanian refugee camp for eight years, came to Australia in 2005 and was eventually granted refugee status here.

The fighter of the title is outsider Isa. Like Fidel, he’s an orphaned Congolese refugee living in Brisbane. In the play, his trainer Luke has labelled him “Steve the Killer”, but once in the ring, his anger management problems hold him back from his stab at the national title and in a series of flashbacks interspersed with the punches, his past is unfolded to the audience.

“You’re here to box, not fight,” Luke tells him.

Audiences can expect to see real fighting, fake guns and knives as Isa comes to terms with the horrors of his past in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he saw his family killed by insurgents who later forced him into service as a boy soldier.

In boxing, Fidel found an apt metaphor for the complex experiences of being a refugee and this, his first play, has been judged to be “an emotional knockout”.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht used to say a play should be like a boxing match – the spectator should be enthralled at one moment and detached the next.

La Boite director Todd MacDonald has approached this production in a way Brecht would have approved of. There’s an exciting gym warmup scene to get the blood up, with plenty of haze, smoke and strobe lighting to help us first become excited ringside spectators, then we become observers/judges of how the talented young boxer is allowing his past to become his own worst enemy.

And what happened in real life? Immensely talented, once here, Fidel joined an African dance group and with other young refugees formed the Fimbo Boys, performing African modern dance and song. In 2011 he was part of a community theatre work “I Am Here”, featuring young people who came to this country following conflict. He graduated in 2013 as an electrical engineer and saw “Prize Fighter” premiered in 2015.

Billed as a “rare theatrical combo: engrossing storytelling paired with the visceral thrill of live boxing”, his play is suitable for young people aged 16+ and is being actively promoted to schools as a way of giving insight into Australian refugees.

Prize Fighter out for the count

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