Belvoir St Theatre, April 27


Mandela Mathia. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Not a soul is born without a backstory, but few are as gripping as Mandela Mathia’s. Not many who haven’t also grown up in a war zone and sought safety elsewhere suffer such trials as infant, child, youth and adult – and then prosper despite racism taking the sheen off that safety.

Mathia, an actor, has turned his story into a one-man show, directed by Jessica Arthur. This he delivers with engaging zest, sparsely accompanied by Yacou Mbaye’s live percussion. Your admiration for him grows throughout the show – not so much for his resilience as for his undimmable optimism, a quality that kept his head above the raging waters of adversity, and now infuses his performance.

Mathia grew up during civil war in Sudan, his nicknames those of guns: Kalashnikov, AK-47 and more. His father, a target, fled to save his family. He was shot nonetheless, his memory just a shadow in Mathia’s infant past. Then, in her desperation to alleviate her young family’s hunger, the loving mother who had named Mathia after Nelson Mandela, crossed a river in an overcrowded boat, and drowned.

Yacou Mbaye and Mandela Mathia. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Such crushing events are leavened with song, while Kate Baldwin’s lighting plays in different ways upon Keerthi Subramanyam’s simple but evocative set.

In an interlude, Mathia explains something of Sudan’s history. Using the cute device of black, brown and white shoe polish, he tells how South Sudan finally split in 2011, without this solving many ingrained problems.

In 2000, at seven, he was sent to live in the “safer” north with a relative whose own children had been killed. The young Mathia tries to ease this woman’s financial burden by shining shoes and other odd jobs. When the dream of Australia is sown, they’re advised to move to Egypt to facilitate the migration process. Despite assorted tripwires, the little family is eventually interviewed; eventually allowed to come. Yet some of the saddest moments occur after his arrival, when Mathia tells of people preferring to stand on a bus than sit beside him, or of Dutton’s infamous dog-whistling over Melbourne’s Sudanese gangs.

Your heart is full at the end: full with Mathia’s suffering, warmth, humour and lust for life. The show could be even stronger, however. Some of the jokes are laboured, and both the writing and the delivery cry out for more tonal variation.

Until May 19.