The Rwandan genocide is turning the rain-soaked streets red.
His parents should be enemies under the binary illogic of war; one is Hutu, one Tutsi. But they’re in love. The Romeo and Juliet reference is there, but Oliver Twist doesn’t give that glorified cliche of Anglo culture an inch. Instead, he looks at the audience and says, his face open, eyes wide: “While the civil war is going on, mum and dad are like, ‘we’re horny’.”
So his life and this show begins.
Now an established comedian and actor, Twist arrived in Australia as a refugee after spending most of his life in a Malawi camp. There, the state of his unwelcome was made known to him and his family with brute, terrorising force – including a visit in the night and a gun to his head.
We learn later in this captivating one-person performance directed by Erin Taylor that Twist’s first day in his country of resettlement isn’t exactly welcoming either. For context: his family was settled in the same Brisbane suburb that Pauline Hanson had her fish and chip shop.
Told with a clear-eyed, understated grace and laced with cleansing humour, Jali sees Twist share his experiences as a refugee – the fear, the disorientation, the bigotry – and his spirit of resilience. Refusing to let the past or the colour of his skin define him, he makes proud claim to the legitimacy of his identity, full of seeming contradictions as he finds it.
There is no clear chronology to his monologue.
The tiny stage at SBW Stables in Kings Cross will dissolve into darkness, and when it reappears, Twist will have walked into another room of his memory, rendering the events that took place there vivid. We see him stuffing a bag full of mulberries from a tree in Malawi, his friend shouting where the juiciest ones hang in Kinyarwandan. We see his father’s machete, never far from his hand. We smell the raw fish stinking up his first Sydney share house. Kelsey Lee’s lighting subtly but powerfully calibrates the scenes’ moods.
This movement back and forward through time and space isn’t hard to follow; Twist has a knack for establishing the where and when fast. The absence of linearity, too, evokes the disordered nature of traumatic memory – its sudden irruptions into the here and now, and how who we are isn’t some simple arithmetic of one experience following another. Still, there is a sense at the end of this hour-long show that not all the parts fall in their right place.
What is undeniable is that Twist is a storyteller of natural grace, completely at ease with his place in the story and where it’s going. He will hold your attention and hold your gaze, and in an instant, provoke a laugh you had no idea could be called so ready at your lips.
Most rewarding is Twist’s deft slippage between tragedy and humour – the two forms overlaid and intertwined. It seems impossible that delight can follow on so suddenly from distress, or joy from despair: but such is the salvation of comedy. Every time Twist pulls, with liquid motion and unchanging tone, some jest from a dark place, it feels like taking a sudden, grateful gasp of air. Or, like being in what you thought was a claustrophobic chamber to suddenly find yourself surrounded by limitless space.
It’s not that Twist makes light of his experiences. What he does instead is to bring the light in; from wherever he can find it. The piece brims with the generosity of this immanent power.
Twist’s experiences of violent de-homing, dehumanisation, political purgatory, rejection, discrimination and dislocation couldn’t leave anyone unmoved once they heard the story told. But it is all the more resonant that the voice that you are hearing from, directly in creative form, is his.
Jali is the first theatre work from Twist. Developed under Griffin Theatre’s Lookout Artists program, which champions emerging theatre-makers and supports them in tangible ways – including 70 percent of the show’s box office take – it shows versatility, adaptability and future promise.
Find an evening hour in your schedule, and fill it with this.