A powerful story to help counter Katie Hopkins’ venom

When I first spoke to Zodwa Nyoni about her one-man play Nine Lives, she was understandably excited.

Playwright Zodwa Nyoni.
Playwright Zodwa Nyoni.

Speaking to her today, she is just as excited, but there is also a new found confidence about the Zimbabwe-born, Leeds-raised playwright.

Having had a hit play on one of the main stages of West Yorkshire since the debut of Nine Lives probably helps.

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In May last year Nyoni’s piece about a Zimbabwean asylum seeker was seen on stage at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

It was part of the theatre’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint season, which gives an opportunity to stage short plays away from the glare of the main stages.

It is an opportunity for playwrights to try out ideas and for emerging actors and writers to try out their craft.

It clearly worked with Nyoni.Earlier this year she was back at the Playhouse, but this time with her debut full-length play Boi Boi is Dead, a follow up to Nine Lives and a play which was received to great applause and impressive reviews.

All of this explains young Nyoni’s confidence in returning to an early hit.

“I’m really pleased to be bringing Nine Lives back again,” she says.

“When we first did it we went from idea to actually showing the piece in about a month-and-a-half, so this gives us an opportunity to look at it and workshop it and have another think about the piece.”

The reason the show is returning is not simply to give Nyoni another chance to look at the play.

Nine Lives has, in the intervening year, become even more relevant, telling the story, as it does, of an asylum seeker in Leeds.

Nyoni was inspired to write the play after becoming a friend of a refugee from her motherland of Zimbabwe.

He had fled to the UK and had been put in a flat in Armley from which he could, as Nyoni puts it “perfectly see the city, but had no way to access it”.

He was applying for asylum here in the UK and Nyoni lost track of him – until she met him again when she went back to Zimbabwe and bumped into him.

It transpired that his bid for asylum had failed and he had been returned to the country he had hoped to flee.

It piqued Nyoni’s interest even further in terms of writing about the stories of asylum seekers.

The story she wrote, Nine Lives, was exhaustively researched and became the tale of a bisexual man fleeing Zimbabwe, where he feared for his life, to come to the UK.

It was a harrowing piece of work, brilliantly performed by Llaldel Bryant, who returns for this latest production.

The play, directed by Alex Chisholm, is being performed at The Hub on Bath Road in Holbeck, Leeds at 5pm on Sunday, before launching on a tour which will continue through until January next year.

“What’s lovely about doing it now is the scale of the work. The emails we used to send around had three people included in them – now there are 10 and we have musicians and other people involved,” says Nyoni.

“That’s great, but for me the even more important aspect is that the story about asylum seekers and refugees has become even more relevant and important to discuss.

“When we are hearing about people drowning in the Med and Katie Hopkins talking about migrants in the terms she uses, it feels like it’s even more important now to tell the real story about these people.”