January 20, 2022

Theatre

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

By Daniel Herborn
Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

 

“When the music changes, so does the dance.” So goes the African proverb that has proved something of a lodestar for comedian and actor Oliver Twist. The improbably named Rwandan Australian’s autobiographical show Jali is forged from this wisdom, fashioning what could have been a straightforward recounting of trauma into a tribute to the malleability of the human spirit.

The tale begins on a night of music and dancing in Rwanda when Twist was conceived, and a missile shot down President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane near Kigali. The incident triggered the Rwandan genocide, which ended in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Twist’s mother is Tutsi, and his father Hutu, making theirs a romance that crossed the fault-lines of the country’s cataclysmic civil war. Another telling of his origins may have wrung out the drama of this situation, but Twist consigns it to an irreverent footnote. “Guess Mum and Dad were horny,” he shrugs.

From here, the action of Jali flits back and forth through time. It variously covers his family’s escape from Rwanda when he was aged four, time in a refugee camp (and later running a shop) in Malawi, attempts to join a humanitarian resettlement in Canada, the family’s eventual resettlement in Ipswich, Queensland, and Twist’s later move to Sydney to take up opportunities as a stand-up comedian. The casually non-linear approach could dissolve into a mess in lesser hands and at times it’s hard to pin down some details of what’s unfolding, but the disorientation is an asset, conveying something of the endless displacement in Twist’s story and the way in which a traumatic past tends to blur into the present. 

It’s a show that does a lot with a little. Twist, a wiry figure with an open smile and eyes that light up when he loses himself in a memory, performs alone on stage, dressed simply in a plain T-shirt, slacks and loafers. The set-up is minimalist, with just a pair of raised platforms and a small recess at the front of the stage. The lighting and sound design are employed like a tasteful, sympathetic rhythm section content not to overshadow the star lead singer; there’s just a flash of warm light here and a subtle sound effect there to underline points of emphasis in Twist’s vignettes.

The stories he tells are fragmented, often no more than a couple of sentences delivered in unflashy prose. But, wow, are they vivid. He talks of Malawi’s summers, when he would collect juicy, sweet mulberries in a plastic bag. He remembers the country’s wildlife, its open skies, his father blasting gospel music from a truck. These are images of an Africa that many rarely see, one that exists alongside and among the more familiar scenes of war.

For all its wilful levity, Jali doesn’t shy away from the scarring violence in Twist’s past. Scenes of officers waking his family at gunpoint to check their documentation or his father instructing them to board up the doors of their small shop with sacks of corn, as carnage unfolds outside, are harrowing. Nor does the displacement end once the family is finally resettled. In a dispiriting but predictable turn of events, Twist finds himself the subject of racist harassment almost as soon as he begins exploring his new Australian neighbourhood. “How many escapes does one have to make in a life?” he wonders aloud.

The spotlight is firmly on Twist throughout, and it’s a testament to his quiet charisma that our focus never wanders. In his other guise as a stand-up comedian, he’s gregarious, often hilarious. In Jali, he’s more subdued, and the humour is more gentle than side-splitting. In passages such as when he recounts a memory of his mother’s anguish at having to give up her stash of Super Black (a hair product “that makes your Afro pop”) to get on the plane, the comedy of the situation stems from relief at how low the stakes are in this particular conflict.

Freed from the demands that stand-up imposes on performers to constantly insert punchlines into a narrative, Twist uses humour here as light to the shade of his story, rather than its raison d’être. There are also some lovely moments revealing a new immigrant who observes Australia’s quirks with benevolent amusement. After Twist completes the ceremony to become an Australian citizen in Sydney, he celebrates with the “most Australian thing imaginable”: a Woolworth’s mud cake. 

In a podcast interview with fellow Australian comedian Anthony Locascio, Twist professed his admiration for the American stand-up comic Drew Michael’s self-titled HBO comedy special, and you can see the stylistic influence. Michael performs without a crowd in that experimental work, pacing around a shadowy set and delivering his confessional monologue straight down the camera lens. Like Michael, Twist is unafraid to use stillness and silence to let a particularly impactful line hit even harder. But Jali is, frankly, a more appealing proposition than the work that apparently helped shape it; Twist’s creation is warmer, more optimistic and more certain of what it wants to say.

There are some particularly enigmatic moments, such as a shift into second-person narrative to describe a baptism in Rwanda’s Lake Kivu. It’s an especially immersive, effecting passage of a memoir that doesn’t try to chronicle every chapter of the subject’s life or explain every beat of the story. Curiously, given its title (“Jali” is a West African term for a storyteller or poet), it treats Twist’s decision to pursue a career in comedy and performance as inevitable rather than a development worth exploring. 

But it would be remiss to focus on what’s missing in a show so committed to finding and celebrating the joy wherever you can. And what’s here in Jali is quite wonderful.

 

Oliver Twist’s Jali plays the Seymour Centre in Sydney until January 23; Studio Underground in Perth from February 16 to 20; and Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane from March 23 to 26.

Daniel Herborn

Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.

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