Photos – Brett Boardman

The ebullience in Belvoir’s Lose To Win is infectious. Written and performed by Mandela Mathia, it is a heart-warming and very entertaining Australian story about a young South Sudanese man’s difficult journey, escaping war and overcoming tragedy and hardship to make a new life for himself in Sydney.

That Mandela Mathia is alive and has made it to Australia is a testament to luck and extraordinary resilience. That this young NIDA-trained actor’s life story is now a play in Belvoir Theatre’s 2024 Season is a celebration of refugees making a new, successful life for themselves.

The show begins with the magnificent Senegalese musician Yacou Mbaye drumming on the landing as we file into the theatre. Once we are seated, he sets the tone of the production, playfully and engagingly warming up the audience before Mathia’s monologue commences.

Director Jessica Arthur has structured the material to create pace and movement, giving each segment a distinct style and tone and creating different moods with humour and music.

The show is presented on Keerthi Subramanyam’s simple set, comprising Mbaye’s drums and other traditional African instruments, and a few suitcases used as seats, tables and maps.

The backdrop is draped with beautiful abstract netting, reminiscent of traditional African weaving. Kate Baldwin’s dynamic lighting design plays off the netting in striking and inventive ways.

Lose To Win is told with a simplicity that reflects Mathia’s experience as a child caught up in a war in which he had no control over what happened to him – parents die; siblings run away; he’s moved to different townships and countries. Mathia describes these devastating events matter-of-factly and with great humour. By not revealing his interiority, Mathia suggests that, to survive, an emotional response to his circumstances is a luxury he could not afford.

Similarly, characters in his narrative are lightly sketched, leaving the audience with a sense that relationships in war, even with parents and siblings, are fleeting. We don’t really get a sense of his family members, but that reveals the reality of a boy caught up in the chaos of war.

It is very powerful when Mathia does reveal his feelings, however. He describes how, as a young child in his village, the family often went without food and how every day, after school, he would check the ashes outside his hut to see if his mother had made any food that day. If not, heartbreakingly, he would put himself straight to bed.

While relieved to arrive in a safe country and thankful for his new opportunities, there is an unexpected downside. Mathia talks frankly about the painfulness of the racism he has endured since making his home in Australia, his “Promised Land”. He describes how the constant dogwhistling about Sudanese Gangs by cynical and opportunistic politicians is shocking and damaging to his already traumatised community.

The audience gave a standing ovation, clearly delighted by hearing a distinctive new voice making a significant contribution to our Australian stories and the evening’s demonstration of theatre’s enduring relevance in telling those stories.

Event details

Belvoir presents
Lose To Win
by Mandela Mathia

Director Jessica Arthur

Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 25 April – 19 May 2024
Bookings: belvoir.com.au/productions/lose-to-win | (02) 9699 3444

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