Can you introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about your artistic background?
I’m a Zimbabwean-born playwright, screenwriter and director. I started writing in 2005 with Leeds Young Authors, a performance poetry organisation. With the group I performed nationally and internationally at venues such as the British Museum, Venezuelan Embassy, Latitude Festival, Southbank Centre, eKhaya Multi Arts Centre (Durban), National Gallery Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Nuyorican Poets Café (New York, USA) and Historic Hampton House (Miami, USA). I also represented the UK at the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival in New York in 2006.
I started writing for theatre in 2010. My first short play, The Povo Die Till Freedom Comes was produced by Freedom Studios in 2011 as part of Street Voices 3. In 2014, My fist full length play Boi Boi is Dead won the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme and I was made Writer-in-Residence at the Leeds Playhouse. The play was also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize 2014/15. My other theatre credits also include: Nine Lives (2014, Oran Mor), Phone Home (2016, Upstart Theatre, Pathos München & Highway Productions), Borderline (2017, Young Vic), Ode to Leeds (2017, Leeds Playhouse), Duty (2018,Paines Plough & National Trust) and Beneath the City (2019,Upstart Theatre). My plays are published with Bloomsbury. I have also written for radio. Most recently, Conversations on a Bench : Leeds (2020, BBC Radio 4), A Khoisan Woman (2019, Drama on 3) and Love Again (2016, BBC Radio 3).
Over the last couple of years, I started exploring storytelling in film. My short film Mahogany (2018) was commissioned by National Trust and 24 Design. The film tells the perilous journey of mahogany and its relationship with the transatlantic slave trade. This was followed by Notes On Being A Lady (2019,Tyneside Cinema/ BBC Arts).
Can you introduce your film, Notes On Being A Lady, and explain the inspiration behind it?
Notes On Being A Lady is a spoken word film exploring the choreography of rules society sets on black femininity. It is based on a poem of the same name by Kadish Morris.
Why did you choose to base your film on the poem Notes on Being A Lady?
I have always been a fan of Kadish Morris’s poetry since we were young poets at Leeds Young Authors. She is evocative and poignant in the way she writes. I particularly connect to the way she describes womanhood. I’d been wanting to find the right moment to collaborate with her. New Creatives gave us this opportunity.
You successfully tackle an important message in a short space of time; was this challenging? Tell me about your creative process for NOBAL? Why did you choose to convey this message in this way?
Making creative work for me is like building a puzzle with all of the available tools, be it in film, theatre, radio and poetry. Multidisciplinary teams bring various languages into a process. It was exciting to play and figure out how poetry, film and dance complement each other within a short form. The poem provided more inspiration than challenges to the team. I wanted to build a production team of black women. We truly connected to the message and could also bring our expertise to the film.
How did you end up on this career trajectory?
I like stories and the act of storytelling. I first came across this in poetry and as a performer. Then I wanted to learn other forms and provide myself with various platforms to express myself. I have taken part in development programmes, schemes and university courses all in an effort to study storytelling. Whilst I was learning kept creating work and building networks at the same time. I just wanted to immerse myself in the arts.
What do you know about the industry now, that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
As a new artist coming into the industry you are met with gatekeepers with narrow views on creativity, identity and worthiness. While I was learning who I was as an artist, I became susceptible to doubt more times than I would have liked or is deemed a normal part of the process of making work. I wish I knew that I had more power than the industry will let me believe I do. But I needed to believe it in myself in order to persevere through the obstacles.
What advice would you give to those wanting to enter the industry?
If you are thinking about getting into the industry, then you are already thinking creatively. I’d say, on top of this, learn about the industry. Information is power. Connect with other creatives. Build networks on social media. Stay consistent with your practise. Take breaks and be kind to yourself.
My play Nine Lives – which follows a gay Zimbabwean asylum seeker named Ishmael who has been dispersed to Leeds by the Home Office – is currently showing at the Bridge Theatre until the 31st October as part of a social distancing season. It will transfer to the Leeds Playhouse on the 4-5th November.
I am also currently in production with my next short film, The Ancestors ( BBC Films/BFI Film Hub North).
Where can we find more from Zodwa Nyoni?
Read our review of ‘Notes On Being A Lady’ here.
New Creatives is a talent development scheme supported by Arts Council England and BBC Arts. Check out our New Creatives coverage in the New Creatives Voicebox.