Review: Since Ali Died, Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)

Omar Musa weaves words and rhythms into a seamless story of boyhood, defiance, and faith.
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Poet, rapper and theatre maker Omar Musa. Photo: David Charles Collins.

From the moment he steps out onto the stage, Omar Musa drips with charm. Like his verse, his charm marries hip-hop swagger with larrikin cheek, and it forms a kind of ballast as we join this voyage through words spoken, spat, and sung.

‘Omar bin Musa,’ he introduces himself, ‘AKA ASAP Laksa AKA the Borneo Romeo.’ The audience is already nodding and laughing and bouncing with the tempo of his words and it hasn’t been a minute. It’s easy to picture him pulling a chorus of clicks as a slam poet.

From some vantages, Musa’s success looks like school alumni magazine cover material: here’s your boy from Queanbeyan who won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin for his novel Here Come the Dogs, and supported spoken word icon Gil Scott-Heron on one of the legend’s final tours before his death. But it’s not these accomplishments that Since Ali Died celebrates. Rather, some of the most powerful moments in this hour-long solo show meditate on uneven opportunity and privilege, on the choices you don’t have, on boyhood surrendered or betrayed – whether by racism, family violence, poverty, or trauma.

While Musa was in high school, his best mate Danny was already in and out of prison. Of the various threads in Since Ali Died – love and heartbreak, family and religion, racism, masculinity, pride and defiance – the story of their friendship and all that’s entangled in it is probably the most vivid and poignant. Picture the young boys on their bikes, Musa still with training wheels. Picture the Queanbeyan River, its memory thick with fish. Picture Danny spinning a hard yarn like ‘an ethnic Chopper Reid’. Across verse and prose, Musa paints an uncanny portrait of growing up in regional Australia that will particularly resonate with 80s babies and those who survived being white Australia’s other.

Presented as part of Arts Centre Melbourne’s Big World, Up Close program focusing on diasporic and Indigenous voices, Since Ali Died combines monologue, poetry, hip-hop and some pretty winning audience banter into a seamless hour of storytelling. With a bare stage and simple, effective lighting design, Musa alone commands all our attention as he effortlessly shifts gears from social commentary to romantic protestations, from high-energy rap to moments of taut stillness as he reckons with what felt like his father’s God. ‘His temper got shorter and the prayers got longer,’ Musa recalls. But eventually Musa finds his own way to something like faith.

Musa’s writing is deeply contemporary and deeply Australian. Both Musa’s parents are writers, and it’s clear that he reads – and listens – widely: his cited influences range from Dorothy Porter to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and in this show you might feel traces of Lupe Fiasco in his bush ballads. Musa’s verse is densely layered, with plenty to unpack in his easy flow. However, the show does feel perhaps one or two songs too long, and while his encore number is enjoyable, adding an encore diminishes the drama of what is otherwise a tight and well-crafted ending.

Towards the end of the show, Musa gathers all the threads and pulls them tight into late 2016, when his hero Muhammad Ali dies and everything in his life and the world seems to be exploding. Still, there is something there that you might call God.

This is a show suffused with tenderness. At times it’s almost too sweet, slipping into sap, but Musa gets away with it – just – as he teases the audience, asking us if it’s too much. Like his heart on his sleeve, like the inked ‘sayang’ curving under his collarbones, like Muhammad Ali, it’s pretty, pretty as a girl.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Since Ali Died
Written and performed by Omar Musa
Director: Anthea Williams
A Griffin Theatre Company production presented by Arts Centre Melbourne and Australian Music Vault as part of the Big World, Up Close program
13-17 August 2019
Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne VIC
Tickets $30-$45

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