Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
July 14, 2018
Adapted for the stage by Osamah Sami and Janice Muller from Sami’s book of the same title, Good Muslim Boy is a powerful piece of autobiographical theatre that takes the audience on an emotional journey from Coburg to Iran and back again, guided by the work’s real-life protagonist.
Osamah Sami in Good Muslim Boy. All photos © Tim Grey
Born in war-torn Iran to Iraqi parents, Osamah Sami is an award-winning actor, writer, director, stand-up comedian, and spoken word artist. His memoir Good Muslim Boy was published by Hardie Grant and won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. The book inspired the 2017 film Ali’s Wedding, also written by and starring Sami, as well as being adapted for the stage in this production, which is directed by Janice Muller.
In the grips of a quarter-life crisis, Osamah reluctantly agrees to accompany his father, one of Australia’s leading Islamic clerics, on a pilgrimage to Iran, where he was born. But when his father dies unexpectedly during the trip, Osamah must undertake a different kind of journey: battling red tape and racing around an unfamiliar place to get permission to return to Australia, with his father’s body as precious cargo, before his visa expires and he is thrown in jail. Like any good memoir, Good Muslim Boy is a self-examining exploration of identity and the elements that comprise it, while also finding the humour and humanity in a tragic set of circumstances. It is impossible to tell if or which parts of the story have been exaggerated – as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
The audience is dropped into the heart of the crisis from the beginning, as Osamah awaits permission for his father’s body to travel back with him to Australia, and jumps across space and time to bring the story full circle. The vulnerability that Sami displays in reliving this deeply emotional time in his life is as admirable as it is riveting. His struggles and pitfalls are contrasted against the kindness he encounters in unexpected places, and the work paints a relatable portrait of strained family relations as Osamah rejects his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, and to help him reconnect with his past and sense of self.
Sami and Rodney Afif
The work paints Osamah’s father as a saintly figure, infinitely kind and wise and respectful, in direct contrast to the protagonist’s own immaturity and impatience, which is compounded by his collapsing marriage and separation from his young daughter. It also captures the numbness and confusion of sudden grief and its responsibilities, clashes of culture and custom, and the challenges Osamah faces growing up at a crossroads of culture and community, feeling as though he fully belongs to neither but able to poke good-natured fun at both.
While Sami plays himself, the rest of many roles are taken on by Rodney Afif and Nicole Nabout, who showcase their incredible versatility with differences in stance, voice, and energy for each new character that they become. There were a few minor line slips or hesitations from Sami and Afif on opening night, but overall the small cast are to be commended for invoking so many varied characters with care and authenticity. In one particular scene, Nabout’s performance as a grieving family member, weeping beside the body of her niece, is so raw and real that it is uncomfortable to watch.
Design by Romanie Harper and sound design and composition by Phil Slade create a very specific sense of space. The single set is wonderfully multi-faceted, with panels spinning and shifting in place to become a bus station, a government office, a hotel lobby, a Melbourne nightclub, an Iranian bazaar… each location was also clearly marked by a place and, sometimes, a year projected onto the set. Ticking and drumming heightens the tension as Osamah rushes to complete his tasks, and lighting design by Ben Hughes is innovative and engaging, perfectly highlighting the small moments and details of the work without detracting or distracting from the onstage action.
At a time when both refugees and Islam are being unscrupulously vilified in our world media, this tender memoir is so much more than an account of personal tragedy and triumph. It is a dynamic piece of work that highlights the state of our world and our shared humanity using what Sami calls in his programme notes “the universal language of emotion.”
“This is why I wanted to tell my story,” he wrote. “Not to show my plight as a kid during the war, but to hopefully (inshallah) act as a conduit between your kind selves and a people who are otherwise only talked about, and rarely heard from. Emotions don’t discriminate against our skin colour or faith.”
Heart-rending and incisive, Good Muslim Boy is a unique piece of theatre that allows audiences to glimpse a life very different from their own, but made recognisable through the universal experiences of love, grief, and the surprising compassion of strangers.
Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre’s Good Muslim Boy is on at QPAC, Brisbane until August 4