Zodwa Nyoni is a playwright, filmmaker and poet based in Manchester, England.
Starting her career writing with Leeds Young Authors, Nyoni has since gone on to win the Channel 4 playwright’s Scheme and had her plays Nine Lives, Come to Where I’m From, Ode to Leeds and (soon to be released) The Darkest Part of the Night published by Methuen Drama.
July saw the world premiere of The Darkest Part of the Night at the Kiln Theatre. The play follows sibllings Shirley and Dwight as they remember their upbringing in 1980s Chapteltown Leeds differently. Against a background of racial discrimination, police brutality and poverty, Dwight was discovering what it meant to be an autistic young Black boy in a world determined never to understand him and Shirley was trying to forge her own independence away from rigid expectations at school and home. Now as adults, they need to bring together the fractured pieces of their past in order to move forward.
We spoke to Zodwa to find out more about the play and her inspiration behind writing it…
Please introduce yourself …
My name is Zodwa Nyoni. I am a Zimbabwean-born playwright, screenwriter and director based in Leeds. I describe what I do as storytelling in different mediums.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
So, your writing career started as a teenager when you joined the group of poets at Leeds Young Authors. Do you ever remember finding poetry difficult to write, or was it a skill that came naturally to you?
Loving English Literature at school is what got me into poetry. I loved studying the words and exploring the writer’s intentions. I started reading and writing poetry because I enjoyed discovering what the form could do. I didn’t find it difficult. It was fun. Joining Leeds Young Authors built on this. I learnt more about the root of words, and different performance styles, met national and international poets, competed in slams; and made lifelong friends.
And then from poetry you started writing for theatre, film and TV. Do you find yourself drawn to a particular medium for each of your ideas – for example, feeling that one medium has particular strengths for the story you want to convey?
When I’m developing new ideas, I do think about which medium would best suit the story. I also think of how adaptations to other mediums change the way an audience engages with the material. This could be from poetry to film, or radio to TV. I like the creative challenges and sometimes will consider exploring the same idea in more than one medium.
Most recently, your new play The Darkest Part of the Night had its world premiere at the Kiln Theatre. Given this play was commissioned by the Kiln Theatre and has gone through an R&D process with director Nancy Medina, how far has its writing been a collaborative process?
The script was developed prior to Nancy coming onboard. I was part of the New Writing Festival at the Kiln in 2016. With the help of dramaturgs over the years, I’ve spent time figuring out the structural form and finding the family unit, both past and present. We’ve gone through R&D’s where the focus was solely on Dwight’s character, autism and communication. During these workshops, we’ve had neurodiverse actors sharing their skills and personal experiences. I took these conversations and redrafted the play.
When Nancy came onboard for the next R&D space, she held the space for conversations on generational trauma, systematic oppression, racism, misogynoir, healthcare, and police brutality. Nancy has the finesse of finding the delicate humanity within the heavy weight of it all. This helped me refine the family’s relationships and obstacles.
During rehearsals, I’d also watch Nancy working with the actors as they found key characterisations. If it wasn’t already in the play, it found its way into the script later. Plays are living and growing at every stage. I’ve learnt from every collaborating artist in the process. Watching the actors move with Ingrid (Movement Director) has been a joy. I’ve loved seeing how Jean (the set designer) interpreted the world of the play on stage and hearing Elena’s sound design travel through time. Once we were in the theatre, we added the lighting, costumes, and props and the world of the play was complete.
The play is set in Chapeltown Leeds and looks at the relationship between Shirley and her brother Dwight, who has autism. How far is the play based on your childhood?
I have an older sister who is non-verbal and has intellectual disabilities. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more about our childhood and how living in both Zimbabwe and England has shaped us. When we lived in Zimbabwe, I didn’t have language for being a child carer nor had a wider understanding of how ostracised neurodiverse and disabled people were in society. There were no visible representations and disability wasn’t publicly spoken about. The only interference we encountered were strangers who felt they could ‘cure’ my sister with prayer because culturally, they believed she was cursed. For the most part, we just lived our lives and disability was a part of that. In fact, the year before we moved to England in 1999, my mother became the Deputy Superintendent of Sir Humphrey Gibbs Training Center in Bulawayo. Today, it is a government funded school and a resident care facility for neurodivergent and disabled children and adults. But back, when we lived on campus, it was privately funded by national and international sponsors.
My sister had attended the school since the age of three. When she started in 1986, Sir Humphrey Gibbs only provided education for children aged 7 and above. She was the youngest child registered as an experiment in designing a new teaching programme for younger children. When we moved to England, it was the first time we encountered the state’s involvement in my sister’s care. We got domiciliary carers in our home, learnt that we were child carers; and saw how various day centers were run over the years. The language, practices and society were different. There were more conversations on the history of disability rights and the lack of representation. I started wondering how differently my sister’s life; and in turn our lives would have been if we had been born here.
My sister’s carers supported other black and Asian families in Chapeltown. The initial idea for the play was to explore what it meant to care; how to give and receive it. I started meeting with various groups, organisations, and families of colour in the neighborhood. I listened to how their intersections shaped interactions with social services, education, policing, healthcare and so forth. The stories in Chapeltown went as far back as the 1960’s. I went back to my family, and we began talking of our lives, past and present. We started putting language to our joys and struggles. There was so much we hadn’t talked or asked questions about. I wondered what my disabled sister would say of her life if she could. And slowly the family and the play started emerging.
Has the fact that the play is partially based on your own childhood made it harder to write at all, or do you find your plays generally come from your personal experience to some degree?
Most of my plays come from personal experiences. I’m usually pondering something about myself or the world I live in. This play, I found especially hard to write as each draft felt like I was uncovering more of mine and my siblings’ childhood, understanding who my parents were; and how circumstances pushed us into survival mode. Survival mode is an adaptive response of the human body to help us survive danger and stress. It is a trauma response. But for black people living in a world where the brutalisation of our minds and bodies is so prevalent, survival mode is also a never-ending state of being. It can be passed down through generations and normalised.
Within the play, we see a key point of trauma for the family. We see how they struggle to find language to express themselves, and we examine how healing can take decades to occur. This is also true for my family. Having a production drama therapist (Samantha Adams) was very necessary for me, the cast and crew as we discussed where the play came from, who the characters are, how society behaves (both in the past and present), and how crucial it is for us to take care of ourselves during the creative process.
The Darkest Part of the Night examines how the intersections of prejudice – race, class, gender and disability prejudice – impact a family’s ability to manoeuvre through society. As a writer, do you feel a responsibility to the platform to explore these nuanced socio-political discussions in your work?
I didn’t begin writing this play thinking I wanted to have a socio-political discussion. I wanted to write the truth of this black family’s life. When I look at my family, I can’t speak of disability without including race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion and migration. All these intersections co-exist daily. If I am going to platform people of colour in any piece of work, I must write about the complex nuances of their lives to do them justice.
It’s recently been announced that you will be writing on a new Channel 4 Dance School drama, celebrated for the fact that it is set in Leeds, will be produced in Leeds and stars local talent. Firstly, congratulations! But, also, with all this Leeds love, I wanted to ask how you felt about The Darkest Part of the Night making its world premiere in London? Do you hope the play will eventually be performed in Leeds also?
The Darkest Part of the Night found a home at the Kiln Theatre. The team wholeheartedly supported the writing and development. They created a space where I felt safe to explore the themes of the play. To have Leeds represented on any stage is important. Northern-based stories are not only for northern stages. Representation matters and I do hope the play will eventually be performed in Leeds. But it is vital that all audiences be exposed to a breadth of experiences, whether that be northern-based writers having productions in London or vice versa.
From being announced as Creative Associate on Tiata Fahodzi’s ‘Year of the Artist’ to working on Dance School, you don’t seem to have a shortage of things on your plate at the moment! Are there any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
There are a few projects I am excited about. I have new projects in theatre, TV and film coming up. One is my short film, The Ancestors. It is about three Zimbabwean spirits that go on a supernatural mission to earth, in hopes of persuading a lost descendant in England to reconnect to her culture through an ancient initiation ritual. It’s produced by BBC Films, BFI and Redbag Pictures.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
A book you have to have in your collection? Any book by Brené Brown. I go back to various chapters of her work for myself or when I’m trying to get into the mind and heart of a character.
A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? I’m Here (The Colour Purple Soundtrack) by Cynthia Erivo
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning.
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? Nothing But The Truth by John Kani. It was one of the first plays I saw on a British stage that had Southern African representation. It spoke of loss, growing up in the diaspora, generational divides, culture; and connecting to back home.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? I’ve not felt sad this week. I’m having a good week. Reading about what’s going on in global politics makes me mad. I’m glad for the release of Beyoncé’s new album, Renaissance.
The Darkest Part of the Night runs at The Kiln Theatre until Saturday 13th August. Tickets available here.