Playwright Zodwa Nyoni’s first full-length play, Boi Boi is Dead, is being staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next month. She spoke to Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad.
She’s something of a paradox, Zodwa Nyoni. Determined and fully aware of what she needs to do to make a success of a career in writing, she’s the sort of person who seems to have the maturity of someone a decade older than her 26 years. Yet she also retains a sense of wonder at the success she is enjoying.
It’s why, when you ask her about her debut play she says in one breath “I’ve worked at it, this is something I wanted to be skilled in,” with a clear determination, yet then says in the next breath “I walked past the poster for my play and I just stood and looked, I couldn’t believe it”.
Nyoni, Zimbabwe-born and Leeds raised, is one of those overnight success stories where you only have to scratch a little to discover is anything but.
Her debut mainstage play might be happening in 2015, but she’s been at this for ten years and while Boi Boi is Dead is her first full-length mainstage play, Nyoni’s work has been seen on different platforms.
Her poetry is featured in the Crocus Books’ Love Anthology, Aesthetica Magazine’s Creative Works Annual, and The Suitcase Book of Love.
“I got involved with an organisation called Leeds Young Authors in 2005 and at the time I thought ‘I’m not quite sure what this writing thing is, so I’ll play with some poetry and see where that goes’,” says Nyoni.
Where it went, within the year, was New York, where Nyoni travelled with Leeds Young authors to take part in a poetry slam competition called Brave New Voices.
One of the reasons Nyoni has become a success is that here is a young woman with her head firmly screwed on and with a self-awareness that allows her to see her own shortcomings and understand what she needs to do to correct them.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but what I realised was that writing was a skill that needed to be perfected, so I kept working on it, kept working on my writing as much as I could,” she says.
“When I went to uni I decided to study writing and theatre. I still wasn’t sure what it meant to me or what exactly I was doing with it, but it was something I wanted to learn more about.”
So far, so familiar. There are plenty of people who decide during their teenage years that writing is a world they want to explore, a skill to use to make sense of the world around them. Nyoni’s attitude, it is clear, was always going to set her apart.
“I knew I wanted to be skilled in it, I wanted to take it seriously and if you want to be good at something you need to put the work in and you need to practise. You need to treat it as your craft and you have to put the effort in to learn it.”
Clearly, a great attitude, but the question was what to do with it?
In 2010 she took part in a playwriting course with Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, Street Voices and wrote a short play Thee Povo Die Till Freedom Comes.
“It was like a lightbulb going on,” says Nyoni.
“The course lasted about three weeks and we learnt about things like the history of theatre and story structure and creating character and I thought that’s it ‘that’s it for me’.”
In a taste of the work that was to come from Nyoni, her first play was set in Zimbabwe and a seemingly small story examines the politics of the story.
“When I first wrote that, I thought the best thing to write was stories about the things I grew up being told about, so I started there.”
Determined Nyoni had found her path. She was going to write for the theatre. She found an ally and mentor in the then Literary Associate at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Alex Chisholm.
She championed Nyoni and helped her to apply for a Channel Four scheme which would sponsor young writers to spend a year working with a theatre. Nyoni was one of the lucky few chosen to take part in the scheme.
“It was insane,” says Nyoni.
“It was Channel Four saying ‘yes, you are a writer’. It’s strange because you don’t really think of yourself that way, but suddenly you are on this national scheme, you’re one of five writers who have been chosen. You think ‘oh yes, I am a writer. Okay, let’s do this now’.
“I’ve always been writing. You always write regardless of whether you have the Channel Four thing or you have nothing, you keep writing.’
Boi Boi is Dead is the play that marks Nyoni’s leap into writing full length plays.
She describes it as a family trying to recover after the death of the central character in their lives, Boi Boi, “with elements of jazz music”.
“They each have a vision in their heads of who this character was and it’s all falling apart. A character called Stella comes back and there is a secret that gets let out, leading to everything falling apart,” says Nyoni.
What she doesn’t say is that the other great significance of Boi Boi is Dead is that it is the play chosen to open the 2015 season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
It is also the Playhouse directorial debut of actor Lucian Msamati, best known as JLB Matekoni in the BBC’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency and as Salladhor Saan in the acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones.
Once the play has had its three-week run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse it will travel down south to be staged at the Watford Palace Theatre.
“This was the feeling I wanted to have. I have worked hard for it and I did it,” says Nyoni.
• Boi Boi is Dead, by Zodwa Nyoni is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, February 14 to March 7.
• Tickets from the box office on 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk