It is less than 24 hours, and I am sitting at my computer, my eyes starting to water, as I try to put into the written word my thoughts on Oliver Twist’s Jali. Even writing his name conjures up memories of his performance last night at Soho Theatre. Walking downstairs after the show, I felt as though everything was in slow motion; perhaps I was a little overwhelmed by Jali, gaining an emotional connection I didn’t think I would get. And walking through Soho, with the night still warm and the streets filled with people on their midweek drinks, I found myself having to stop and take a deep breath. I tried to shake it off and decided to go for a walk to break the mood I found myself in.
Jali, written, directed and performed by Oliver Twist, is a one-person show that engages its audiences the moment Twist comes on to stage. At its core, Jali is a deeply personal refugee story of a family’s forced journey to their new home in Australia. Told through humour, honesty, and insight, Jali is political without being overly political; it has a message without grandstanding; and it offers a truly unique perspective of the issues and experiences that refugees face on their arduous journey to safety.
At every step, Jali is about Twist’s life and his experiences; it is Twist's remarkable upbeat, positive, forward-looking mentality that is inspiring. It is this powerful ability of Twist to create a narrative that doesn’t try to guilt his audience or make them feel uncomfortable through his subject matter. Here, for Twist at least, there is no blame, and he never sees himself as a victim, so his audience has no need to feel sorry for him.
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide is contemporary history and a historical moment that has never left the public's conscience, as films, TV, and news segments continue to educate and inform the public of the grave complexities of the Rwandan Genocide and the destruction that followed. There is no simple way of telling this history; this wasn’t just a ‘civil war’ between Tutsi and Hutu. The long issue of division sown into Rwandan society through Colonialism played a significant role in the conflict that impacted millions of Rwandans. As Twist begins to talk about the Genocide and how his parents came from different tribes, the enormity of the situation faced by hundreds of thousands of people begins to sink in. Fear, worry, neighbours turning against neighbours, rivers of blood paving the streets—just how does a family manage to stay together?
A great part of Jali is a love letter to Rwanda. In the mix of all the horrors that happened after the President’s assassination in 1994, what was never lost, at least for Twist, was the beauty of his home country. The land, the people, the culture—all of this is given a central platform, which allows the audience to understand where Twist comes from and what he and his family were forced to give up. What is lost in the refugee debate is that refugees are being forced to leave their homes and their land for safety and freedom from persecution. They never forget the significance of where they came from and what these places mean to them and to their children, who may never get to experience the beauty of their ancestral lands.
This is brilliantly captured during a scene in which Twist steps into the waters of Lake Kivu, surrounded by the elders, in a moment of baptism and his rebirth. Now, close to his audience and with rich blue lights stripped along the bottom of the stage facing out towards the audience, a powerful moment of serenity overtakes you. As Twist describes this moment and his feelings at being in the arms of the elders, one can hear the waves gently crashing against the riverbanks, and you can almost smell the crisp evening air. It is in this moment that Twist's almost breathless voice creates an indelible moment that you truly believe is real.
As open as Twist is when he talks about his family, he never delves far beyond the general surface of who his mother, father, and siblings are. The only time Twist goes deeper into his family is when he talks about his father, a man who would eventually become broken by the ordeals his family has had to go through. There is a lot of understanding from Twist towards his father; some of it has taken him time to process and understand. Much like the rest of his writing, Twist never plays victim or seeks sympathy. Instead, what he’s created with Jali is a play about family and a young Black boy who has been through a lot and comes out of it with a strong sense of who he is and the person he wants to become.
"Twist makes you believe you are there through his conviction and Moroney’s lighting and as Twist takes a bite of an imaginary fruit, he convinces you that it’s real."
Twist’s decision to not tell this story chronologically was the right choice, and it created a much more natural flow that added extra dimension to his narrative flow. The bareness of the stage is surprising because you never feel like Twist is ever really alone. The places and people Twist encountered on his long journey to Australia are brilliantly realised through the lighting of Morgan Moroney and the sound design of Daniel Denholm. As he talks about Malawi and working in his parents shop, flicking his flip flops off, climbing a tree, and sharing his rewards with his friends. Twist makes you believe you are there through his conviction and Moroney’s lighting and as Twist takes a bite of an imaginary fruit, he convinces you that it’s real.
On reflection, the significance of Jali is finally setting in. In Twist’s writing, there is a purity and an honesty that are refreshing, and he never tries to be sensationalist in the narrative he’s created. There is no hate or self-pity, but instead there is a remarkable insight into a young man’s ability to persevere. All too often, writers feel the need to exploit their experiences, which can usually alienate an audience because they lack similar experiences or understanding. To counter this, Twist adopts some jokes that buffer his stories and that, in a way, verge on bad taste but are wholly needed. Moreover, Twist presents his story as matter-of-fact and never plays to the emotion or trauma of his experience, which allows the audience to appreciate every word he shares.