Prize Fighter packs a mighty emotional punch, says Robert Reid
Ghosts in the ring.
All day I am anticipating the sound a boxing glove makes on skin. The slap of leather on flesh, the soft, sick thud of its impact on the body. Because I know Prize Fighter is, at least situationally, about boxing, the thunder of a ringside crowd, that distinctive crack that is one human striking another, haunt my day.
As a small child I was taught to box. This was the ‘80s in suburban Australia and if the boy was gonna be able to defend himself, he was gonna need to learn how to box. This was put a stop to fairly quickly because I was never a very engaged boxer, or at least, not until an opponent managed to land a real punch on me somewhere (maybe giving me a black eye or bloody nose): then the red mist would descend and moments later I’d find myself standing over a crying neighbourhood kid.
Ridiculous and impossibly toxic notions of masculinity still echo in those dull, wet, slap noises. Our submission to authority roars at the ringside along with the gladiatorial crowd.
Prize Fighter, written by Future D. Fidel and directed by Todd MacDonald, tells the story of Isa, a Congolese refugee who makes his way to Australia, passing through war zones and refugee camps before ending up in Luke’s Boxing Gym in Brisbane. In its way, Prize Fighter reminds me of Scaramouche Jones from earlier in the year; it’s a tour through some of the dark pits of European colonisation. But Prize Fighter is no Boys’ Own Adventure, as was Scaramouche Jones. The realities of colonisation, its effects and legacies, are shown without any romanticisation. It’s not a simple story of redemption like The Fighter, nor a rags to riches story like Rocky’s. It is a story of survival, of profound loss and dogged continuation.
As we enter the main hall, the atmosphere of a boxing match, a small one, spills out through the main doors. A boxing ring is set up in the centre of the room and the audience is in banks on all sides. The room is filled with noise, people talking, finding their seats, the actors warming up and stalking around the ring, sparring with each other; trainers move around between their fighters, encouraging them, firing them up. The audience mingles too, informally: activity is everywhere, people wave to each other across the hall. I’m over here, they signal, I found good seats to watch the fight from, come over and get a good view.
Lights shift and I think I hear the ding of a bell signalling the start of a round, but I may be misremembering that. In the ring is Isa (Pacharo Mzembe) who talks with his trainer/manager Luke (Margi Brown Ash). Isa is fighting under the name Steve, “the Killer”. His trainers bark encouragement, but something is wrong. During the fights, Isa is having flashbacks, memories and intrusive thoughts that take him back to his childhood in Goma, when he was simply surviving through the horrors of civil war. When these memories overtake him he forgets himself in the ring and becomes violent, abandoning the gentilities of the sweet science and snapping into genuine violence. In his head, Isa is fighting his past while in the ring he is fighting for a kind of future.
Isa’s journey begins when he is 10 years old, presumably during the second civil conflict in 2011. Soldiers, known locally as Kadogos, or “little ones”, only a few years older than Isa, bring the war to his village. They attack Isa’s family in their home: as Isa watches, they brand his father a traitor and execute him on the floor of their house. With the same casual cruelty, the soldiers rape and murder Isa’s sister and then pressgang him into joining their army, where he’s taken under the wing of one of his captors (Mandela Mathia), a boy soldier only three years Isa’s elder. The boy explains that he has done Isa a favour in executing his family. He tells Isa that when the same thing happened to him he was forced by the soldiers to kill his own family. The boy takes him on as a ward of sorts as the soldiers move from village to village, bringing death and horror with them.
Years later in Australia, Isa is asked a barrage of questions to assess his suitability for refugee status. The questions are familiar to us now, the kind of bureaucratic questions designed to illuminate potential applicants for visas. Where are you from? Why did you leave? What will happen to you if you go back there? One question in particular causes Isa to fall silent: Have you ever killed? “Steve” wears the title “Killer” in the ring, but Isa is a killer: his flashbacks in the ring lead us inexorably to that moment.
Sent into a house like his own in a village like his own, Isa makes a faltering attempt to free the young girl he finds inside. He offers to turn a blind eye and let her run, but it comes too late as Isa’s protector discovers them together and orders Isa to bring the girl to their leader. Isa and the others have been sent out with order to kill everyone older than 15 and younger than eight. The rest are to become soldiers or die. The women of the village are to be rounded up and brought back to camp to be raped and murdered. Rather than condemn this young girl to that fate, Isa makes a sudden decision in the moment and swings his machete, killing her. A mercy killing.
The heavy, dull smacks of glove on body that I have been anticipating never come. There are soft, feathery whispers as punches make near misses. Somehow this is more disturbing. The physical and psychical blows that ring out feel real enough in a fight, but in the theatre, realistic violence is so much smaller than the real thing. Without the sound to go with the sight, each punch feels sickly and out of context, almost as if the fight were happening in slow motion or under water. The effort of the fight is real enough, but the damage of it is a phantom. We swim in and out of memory and the moment, the fight itself the only thing that’s constant.
Isa’s trainer/manager Luke urges his to keep his mind on the game, to focus on the fight and to remember that he is only a few fights from taking the title of Australian Light Heavyweight Champion from its current holder. Isa has come to the gym, she says, because he wants to be a champion. Isa himself hardly talks about the championship at all; his focus is always on his search to find his brother, Moses (Gideon Mzembe).
Moses is still alive back home, having been sent away from the village by their father only a little time before. In Australia, Isa is only concerned to do what he must do in order to find and bring his brother to Australia. Winning the boxing championship is dangled before Isa as a way to become successful and wealthy enough to do just that. Australia doesn’t really care who you are or where you’re from; as long as you’re winning you have the power to do as you like. You can get a big home, you can have a nice car, flashy clothes and jewellery and yes, even find long lost relatives and gather them together in the lucky country.
We don’t see how Isa escapes the army, but we do see the scene in which his 13 year old mentor dies and he finds his way to a refugee camp. Here he falls in love with a camp organiser, Nyota (Ratidzo Mambo). Nyota in Swahili and Lingala means “star”, and she’s perhaps the one spark of light in the terrible darkness this boy has had to navigate. Isa is still very young and in his time as a child soldier has both aged immensely and yet remained a child in important and still very vulnerable ways. The romance that blooms between him and Nyota is one in which the boundaries of the relationship are still indistinct even though the harshness of their environment gives that friendship an urgent edge.
Isa is taken away from Nyota when he is approved for resettlement in Australia. He remains in contact by phone. She wants him to send her money. When he leaves she tells him not to talk to any white girls in Australia because she is jealous. She doesn’t care if he talks to black girls because, according to Nyota, there aren’t any black people in Australia (a chill runs through me at this, I wonder at the kind of image Australia presents of itself to the world outside for Nyota to think this. I shudder at the thought of it. I shudder at the truth it.)
The other performers move fluidly in and out of roles around Isa. Their transitions from one character to another are seamless, shifting through different scenes from endearing and warm family to hard cold bastard killers. Each gives a remarkable performance. Isa is always fighting ghosts in the ring: his past rears up at him out of the faces and bodies of his opponents. Their voices and smiles and madness all swirl around him as he fights, jabbing and swinging wildly at him out of the confusion.
Just before the championship fight, Isa learns from Nyota that Moses has died three weeks previously. It’s the only moment that feels forced to me. That Moses is dead comes as no surprise. Almost everything is taken away from Isa over these eight years and 70 minutes: his family, his country, his childhood, his name. That he “was so close” to finding his brother once again – missing him by less than a month – feels oddly anachronistic. It does, ever so slightly, over egg the pudding. This is a very very niggly criticism but, for me, it introduced a tiny element of conveniently meaningful fictionalising that added a touch too much pathos.
They fight with their hands up, close around their head and body. Gloves up around and tight in. This is a good technique to protect yourself when you’re getting the tar beaten out of you, but it makes for a very poor fighter. If your gloves are too close to your face, they become just another weapon to hit you with. Swing a right or left hook hard enough and the impact travels through the hands and into the head. The gloves take some of the impact, sure, but with enough repetition the result is the same. You wanna just stay on your feet and hope you can last long enough and land enough touches of your own to win on points, while you stand there and get battered.
Prize Fighter is excellent. It packs a mighty emotional punch.
Prize Fighter by Future D Fidel, directed by Todd MacDonald. Design by Bill Haycock, lighting design by David Walters, sound design by Felix Cross. Remix by Busty Beatz. Movement and fight direction by Nigel Poulton. Performed by Pacharo Mzembe, Gideon Mzembe, Margi Brown Ash, Marcus Johnson, Ratidzo Mambo and Mandela Mathia. Presented by La Boite at Darebin Arts as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available
Auslan interpreted performance 8pm Thursday 18 October
Audio described performance: 8pm, Saturday October 20.