Rapper, poet and author Omar Musa premiered his solo show Since Ali Died at Griffin Theatre Company last year at the inaugural Batch Festival, programmed to present new works that expand the boundaries of theatre. The show was a smash hit and now returns for another season, in association with Sydney Festival, then tours to Parramatta and Canberra.

Omar Musa in Since Ali Died. Photograph © Robert Catto

Born in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, into a Malaysian-Australian Muslim family, Musa uses the death of his hero, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, as the starting point and “lyrical springboard” for the piece, bringing together a compelling mix of rap, poetry and song to tell personal stories and reflect on what it means to live in Australia as “a brown man living in a black land”.

We hear about the alienated boys he grew up with, his close friend Danny, whose smile sometimes looked like a shark’s, the girlfriend he’d love to “unsettle down with”, the father obsessed with praying whose temper becomes shorter as his prayers grow longer, frequently taking it out on his son, and the mother who bolsters and encourages her “beautiful boy” when she drives him to school each day.

Pollution, racism, the pressure to assimilate, the lack of compassion in a country he suggests should be called “UnAustralia”, where a “fair go” is only available for some, all feature in the politically-charged piece. The writing is stunning: clever, sharp, poetic and free-flowing. The issues he addresses are dark and knotty, yet laced with humour and poignancy, while Musa himself has huge, laid-back charisma. Addressing the audience directly, he never minces words but manages to convey anger without distancing the audience, offering optimism and hope, as he draws us into his world.

Directed by Anthea Williams, with singer Sarah Corry joining Musa for a couple of songs, Since Ali Died runs a tight hour, and was met on opening night with a standing ovation. It may occasionally feel a little scattered in structure, but it is riveting: a piece that feels raw, honest, authentic with a strong, clear message about tolerance, open-mindedness and compassion in a world where extremism is becoming frighteningly rife.

Since Ali Died plays at SBW Stables Theatre as part of Sydney Festival, January 19, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, January 22 – 25, and Canberra Theatre Centre, January 30 – February 2

Don't miss out 200th issue, subscribe today