M’appelle Mohamed Ali is a great play in either official language

Review by Ben Peterson

The play M’appelle Mohamed Ali was first written by Congolese author Dieudonné Niangouna more than ten years ago, but was given new life in Montreal in 2022 with Théâtre la Sentinelle and Théâtre Quat’sous’ adaptation of the text. Now, in April 2024, the touring show was brought to La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins by the Théâtre de la Vieille 17. Co-directed by Philippe Racine and Tatiana Zinga Botao, this is an amazing show I would definitely recommend seeing.

This French-language performance was presented with English surtitles April 6th at 3pm, which is the one I attended.This play being quite heavily worded, audience members who are not fluent in French should come in knowing they might not catch all of its nuances. This show does tackle some harder topics, like racism and the mistreatment of Black people in the 1960s, that may be difficult for certain audience members to receive. Although M’appelle Mohamed Ali is aimed at an adult audience, it may be suitable for informed teen spectators and should be watched with the knowledge that this is not a lighthearted show.

This performance certainly defied my expectations. I went in to see it without much preparation to let the show speak for itself. It was not simply an action-focused show about Mohamed Ali’s boxing career and athleticism, rather it was a nuanced exploration of the struggles of Black people and a retelling of Ali’s experiences as a person in the spotlight heavily affected by racism. For example, the play addresses how the U.S. government treated Ali as a pawn they could use, but if he made one wrong step he would get everything taken away from him. 

The theme of black masculinity was also a focal point of the text. Although Black men should be seen as equal to men of other backgrounds, this show highlights the way Black men like Mohamed Ali were historically viewed as more violent and aggressive than their peers. However, this play reminds us that Ali was not just a mindless fighter, he was a complex human being. Since Mohamed was such a strong and confident Black masculine figure, when he was in the ring, nobody would bet on him and the white public felt that he needed to be knocked down a few notches. Despite the fact that boxers are expected to be violent and toxically masculine, Mohamed Ali stands out by fighting for peace through his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War.

I admit I was a bit confused by the storyline in the beginning as it seemed as though the performers were jumping from topic to topic randomly, but all these separate ideas came together as the show went on. This play is carried by several actors who take turns in playing the role of Mohamed Ali. I think this gave the actors a chance to shine individually. While each actor took on the main role, the other performers filled the stage with movement directed by choreographer Claudia Chan Tak. This group choreography was not always directly representative of what was being said by the actor, but never took away from the message or disrupted the show. The sound effects made by the chorus of performers were always complimentary to the text. The way the actors used their voices was amazing even without any microphones, and it was incredible to see how they kept this up through pure vocal projection, although I did worry that the actors might damage their voices by the end of their tour. 

I would recommend this fantastic play to anyone who is not afraid to be challenged by art and whose level of French will allow them to capture all the nuance of this powerful text.

Here is the website for La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins: https://www.nouvellescene.com/en/