REVIEW: Otis Mensah – Existed Once
Something strange happened to me the other day. I walked past busy pubs and the sun was shining, people joked about their newfound sense of normality in the abnormal, talking of covid like it was the dying candle on a birthday cake for an arsehole. And I wasn’t dreaming. I walked all the way to The Crucible where smiles hidden behind facemasks met me before my temperature was taken and ticket scanned. And I wasn’t dreaming. I stood next to a girl at the bar and tried to hide how perplexed I was as she ordered a shot of vodka, before making my way through a maze of padded seats and illuminated aisle numbers, a sight that was simultaneously alien and yet familiar. And I wasn’t dreaming. I overheard two women in front of me speaking about how they were looking forward to seeing Nomadland the next day because they’d heard good things, right before MF Doom took to the stage. And I still wasn’t dreaming.
I was at Otis Mensah’s show Existed Once, a combination of poetry and rap hymns, performed against a backdrop of short animations. This was my first (and I assume most people in the room’s) first time visiting a theatre for some time and that was reflected in the fact that though due to social distancing it was only filled to about a third capacity; there was an unspoken buzz about the place.
The first person to face it was the support act, Algernon Cornelius. A lot of credit is due to Algernon who stepped in last minute for this performance as SheBeKeke unfortunately had to self-isolate. Despite the fact he was brought in last minute, it didn’t stop him from taking to the stage and owning it.
Algernon is an impeccable wordsmith with a sense of humour that the crowd struggled to connect with at first, as he took off a mask and announced he was MF Doom the whole time and isn’t dead; however, people did eventually warm to it. In complete contrast with his softly spoken sarcasm, Algernon’s delivery on these tracks was ruthless and emotive. Delivering well written existential bars over aggressive lo-fi and static-infused production.
With Algernon, you were clearly watching somebody obsessed with their craft: every footstep, movement and wave of the hand was matched perfectly in time to chaotic music that he knew inside out. The passion in his delivery is something to be marvelled at and the whole set was a treat to watch. That being said (and this is totally out of his control), because of how harsh some of the production was and the emotiveness of his delivery, he is certainly a performer who would thrive better in a gig environment rather than a theatre.
Next up was Otis. There are lots of things in this world I understand but can’t fully comprehend. The construction of the pyramids, the beauty and yet destructive nature of volcanoes, the size of the solar system, and now added to that list is Otis Mensah. He took to the stage so comfortably, so in his element, it was as if the pandemic had never happened and he’s been doing this every day for the past year.
Opening with Ode To Black Thought one of the poems from his book Safe Metamorphosis, the crowd were immediately in the palm of his hand. Otis uses his voice in the same way that Ornette Coleman uses a Saxophone, in that there is rhythm and melody present, but it is so sporadic as his ability to flip flows and alter cadences runs parallel to the dismantling nature of Free Jazz. He changes speed and pitch, conveys emotion in every word, all whilst making it look easy.
Otis uses his voice in the same way that Ornette Coleman uses a Saxophone, in that there is rhythm and melody present, but it is so sporadic as his ability to flip flows and alter cadences runs parallel to the dismantling nature of Free Jazz.
Otis jumped from poem to rap hymn, over jazz soundtracks as animations of himself gazing out the window at covid or looking out to a burning world were projected behind him, creating a fantastic backdrop which accompanied the moving lyricism and themes behind each performance very well.
After feeling so elated upon leaving the theatre, there was a part of me that wondered whether I was just buzzing off the high of being back at live performances, and whilst that certainly added to the experience, it’s not why Existed Once was so good. Algernon and Otis both took to the stage and delivered their all, the end result of which was the perfect welcome back to live performances.
It’s good to see that Otis Mensah can still work a stage like it’s his second home even after an 18-month hiatus and upon seeing that, I can’t help but feel optimistic, and wonder whether we are entering a genuine level or normality. I hope so.
I also hope the women in front of me enjoyed Nomadland.