Walk into the Belvoir Theatre this Sydney Festival and you'll find yourself inside a boxing ring.
Prize Fighter is both a literal and metaphorical fight of a Congolese child refugee to escape from the demons of his own war-torn past.
"You don't often see this narrative onstage. It's not that it's not out there, it just hasn't been given the space nor the time to be developed properly," director and Artistic Director of La Boite Theatre Company Todd MacDonald told The Huffington Post Australia.
For MacDonald, it is both a show and a story with "many beautiful layers". For Prize Fighter, and indeed its Australian-Congolese playwright Future D. Fidel, have had a long and enduring history with the Queensland theatre company.
"There is such a culture of privilege for white artists in Australia that if you don't provide extra pathways or if you don't look towards the artist's individual needs, you are going to miss something."
In 1996, Fidel, a refugee from East Congo, fled the civil war after being separated from his family, spending eight years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. After learning of his mother's death in Congo in 2001 and being reunited with his sister, he made the journey to Australia and was granted refugee status in 2005.
"It is an extraordinary story in itself," MacDonald said.
"Before I came on board at La Boite, I was working at Queensland Theatre and trying to diversify the company's outlook on the type of work that it could conceive itself doing.
"One of the works that I came across was one called 'I Am Here'. It was a community theatre based work developed by a group of young African leaders in their communities who were here as refugees. They were telling their stories. Future was in that show."
Through a partnership between Australia Council, Queensland Theatre, La Boite and Brisbane organisation Metro Arts, Fidel later became an artist-in-residence at La Boite in 2013 where he began writing Prize Fighter.
"When I took over at La Boite, I picked it up and directed the work in 2015. The project has already had a life there -- it was a lovely synergy."
In the ring
Following its debut season at La Boite in 2015, Fidel's first feature play, inspired in part by his own past, is now impacting audiences at Sydney Festival.
"It is conflated between his story and that of his brother's, who was a child soldier," MacDonald said. "He has brought these two truths together into a new fiction using sport."
Prize Fighter tells the story of Isa, played by Pacharo Mzembe, a young Congolese boxer who is preparing for a national championship.
"We use the physical form of the boxing ring to follow two important fights that Isa has to attempt to become the Australian champion in his weight division," explains MacDonald. "Effectively we flip in and out of real time and flashbacks of his traumatic childhood and being forced to become a solider."
In this way, the ring becomes a dual war zone.
There is no pretense here -- this is live fighting onstage.
Onstage, Pachero Mzembe fights alongside his brother Gideon Mazembe (who play's Isa's opponent) -- both elite sportsmen and refugees who fled from their Malawi village aged five and six.
For MacDonald, these parallels formed interesting layers and a viscerally impacting work.
"'Pach' has boxed at a high level and his brother is a retired professional rugby league player. There is no pretense here -- this is live fighting onstage and having this was a huge game changer," MacDonald said.
"We were able to work up the play to a higher level of intensity and this really assisted us dramaturgically."
On its message
For MacDonald, the likes of Prize Fighter carve the direction of his program at La Boite as a way of tackling entrenched attitudes in Australian theatre and the arts.
"I can't think of another African-Australian narrative I have seen onstage. Ever," MacDonald.
"Future is the happiest man I have ever met. He is so grateful and so relieved of his life here. But I find it interesting that historically there has been a resistance to want to hear these types of stories -- which can be ones we should be immensely proud of."
I think the whole point of the arts is that it provides a platform for us to see the humanity -- that is our job. It is what we are all fighting for.
And he believes artists like Fidel deserve extra pathways to cut through deep entrenchments.
"There is such a culture of privilege for white artists in Australia that if you don't provide extra pathways or if you don't look towards the artist's individual or cultural needs, you are going to miss something. You need to understand how they got here," MacDonald said.
"I think the whole point of the arts is that it provides a platform for us to see the humanity -- that is our job. It is what we are all fighting for."
Prize Fighter is at Belvoir Theatre until January 22 as part of Sydney Festival.
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