Earlier this year Barrington Robinson, producer and founder of Redbag Pictures, caught up with Zodwa Nyoni to talk about her journey into the creative industry.
Zodwa Nyoni is a Zimbabwean-born poet, playwright, screenwriter and director for theatre, film and TV. She started writing in 2005 with Leeds Young Authors (LYA), a community-based performance poetry group. She has led poetry workshops in schools, prisons and community groups in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Zodwa’s first play, Boi Boi is Dead, debuted in 2015 at the Leeds Playhouse to critical success. Since then she has gone on to create more work for the stage and screen such as Ode to Leeds (2017), Mahogany (2018) and Notes on Being a Lady (2019). There is a lot more to know about Zodwa Nyoni and a lot more to come from her. She refuses to be kept in a box and creates fluidly across platforms.
When did you first find a love of story that connected with you?
A lot of our education here, the curriculum is very Eurocentric. So you’re not getting a variety of writers in your early years, and it wasn't until I got to GCSE level and I got the anthology of poems from other cultures. It was the first time I could see and read poems from people around the world, Africa included. I saw histories I understood and connected to. As a writer, that representation gave me the push to start speaking about myself. I chose poetry as my first medium. This made me feel like actually there is a role for me and there is a role for people with my voice and my perspective as a Black African woman to the diaspora. I was fortunate that I was intrigued by writing, and then specifically poetry, because it was my first entry point that led me to seeking writers elsewhere and my knowledge and passion were able to grow.
So how did you step into the world of poetry?
I had been reading a collection of poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah, and he had a show coming up in Leeds. This was in 2005. There was this group of poets who were his opening act. They turned out to be Leeds Young Authors. I'd never seen a group of young people performing spoken word poetry before. All I'd ever known was what you're taught in school and what I’d seen on Def Poetry Jam. But suddenly, in my community, I discovered this youth organisation. I wanted to be a part of that group. I want to be a part of that movement. So I remember going up to the Artistic Director, Khadijah Ibrahiim, and I was like, “Hey, how do I join? What do I need to do to be a part of this movement?” And she's like, “Show up at Media Centre on Tuesday, 6 to 8pm. And it begins there.” And that was it. I started going every Tuesday. I met other young poets from across Leeds. Some I wouldn’t ever have met, but we became this poetry family. We're still friends now and that's 16 years later. We’ve performed nationally and internationally together. I was lucky to have that kind of grassroots foundation.
What was the thought process transitioning from poetry to playwriting. When did you realise I can… I'm allowed to join that gang?
I went on to study performing arts in college and as an undergraduate; and then specialised in Creative Writing for my postgraduate. Through studying and finding more Black writers, specifically finding more Black African writers, I was like, okay, so we do that! We write about ourselves in various contexts. In poetry I’d written about being young, migrating to England and kind of growing up between two cultures. I loved being the performer, playing with form and seeing what it offered to stories. I started learning about theatre, its forms and the industry. I liked that ideas grew in my head and then this team takes it on board. You see how directors interpret it. You see how design is interpreted and then actors get it and then you can offer the story up to an audience. I think at that point, I was like, okay cool, I want to be a part of that journey and process. I’m always open to learning and building on my craft, from theatre; I took time to learn about film and TV.
You've done a couple of short films, but how does that translate? How do you feel about moving from being a writer to also be the director? So you're responsible for the performances and visuals as well as the words – how does that feel?
I write knowing how I want it to look like on stage or in film; that transition of playwright to screenwriter wasn’t too hard. I did have to think about how text functions in film, consider where I had to be economical and how to utilise the visual images more. Settling into the job of the director took a little more time. Writing is so solitary, but as a director you are leading the team. Trusting the team is really important. I’ve had really great cinematographers that I’ve worked with to build the vision of the story. In theatre, the team has your script to follow, but in rehearsal rooms once they’ve asked you questions as the playwright, I feel a little redundant. I like watching directors bring the story to life. There’s something about film that attracted me to want to learn the skills of directing here, rather than theatre. I think it was all so new to me. I liked the challenge and the potential teams I could collaborate with.
So you talk about Leeds, where you were raised and you went to uni, and you see your work on the stage there, your film is set there, and then you branched out across the country: London, Birmingham, Manchester. How do you feel creatively? How is the north is perceived with respect to London, for example, in terms of creativity?
There's a lot of creativity here and a lot of innovation. I think the problem that we still have is that the notion of “what is of quality” is always centralised in London, which means that you have a lot of talented people who then end up getting ignored, and when you then centralise an idea or a sector in one place, everybody migrates there, which means that you are then draining talent elsewhere. That's the frustrating thing. So when you think about finding talent, whether it's actors or producers that you want to work with, it’s like, “where is everybody up north, you know?” I've been in those spaces where I'm on the early train to London to go have all the meetings to travel back on the very last train to get back home. I want to be at home if I can and not have to worry about the financial implications of one meeting. It really is physically demanding having to always do that kind of journey up and down. A consequence of lockdown is that people realise, actually, you can work and connect around the world. We need to make the most of it, and we need to reach people who are not getting those opportunities. There needs to be more of a consideration about how talent is nurtured – the scope of talent that you have around this country – and go out and find it.