Zodwa Nyoni: The writer making young people seen and heard

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

image copyrightAnthony Robling
image captionOde To Leeds is based on a real youth poetry group in the city

Young, talented and dismayed at the state of the world - the teenage characters in Zodwa Nyoni's new play seem pretty real. And so they should - they're based on herself and her friends.

The five characters we meet are all trying to navigate the things teenagers have to navigate - friendships, love, family, exams and how to make their voices heard.

When Zodwa Nyoni was in her teens, she decided to make her voice heard by joining a performance poetry group in her home city of Leeds.

Now 28, she's making her voice heard as a playwright and has revisited those days for this new production, which uses poetry to tell the stories of people who are often overlooked or underrated.

"When you enable young people to have a platform and to speak their truth, there is an incredible amount of knowledge and wisdom that they can give over," Nyoni says.

image copyrightRichard Davenport
image captionZodwa Nyoni: "I feel seen. And we have to continue to feel seen, as people of colour"

As a teenager, she was frustrated by people who assumed "young people weren't empowered or weren't political or weren't socially aware, when we were".

The characters in the play, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, are inspired by the friends Nyoni made in the poetry group, Leeds Young Authors.

From an array of backgrounds (white British, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Jamaican, mixed), they represent a cross-section of youth in the city.

It's unusual for a big city theatre to stage a play so directly inspired by such a mix of real, local, young people.

media captionThe Ode To Leeds cast rehearse I'm Going To Start The Poem

Amid a diet of Shakespeare, other classics and more loosely located modern stories, this show - titled Ode To Leeds - is more firmly rooted in its community than most shows on British stages.

Zimbabwe-born Nyoni has been mentored by the West Yorkshire Playhouse for several years, since coming through the ranks of Leeds Young Authors.

"This is my home," she says. "This is where I live, and this is the theatre that invested time in my work. If it isn't reflecting my experiences as well as bringing in The Grapes of Wrath and Romeo and Juliet again, then you cease to have any function.

"I feel seen. And we have to continue to feel seen, as people of colour, as artists of colour."

image copyrightAnthony Robling
image captionLeah Walker plays 15-year-old poet and singer Darcy
image copyrightAnthony Robling
image captionArchie Rush plays Mack, a 14-year-old poet and MC

Her story follows five budding poets as they try to raise money and support to compete at Brave New Voices, an international poetry competition in the US, while also dealing with their own teenage dramas.

Nyoni herself competed at Brave New Voices with Leeds Young Authors, and the group's trip to the event in a different year was filmed for the brilliant award-winning 2012 documentary We Are Poets.

Nyoni first saw Leeds Young Authors when they were the opening act for Benjamin Zephaniah in Leeds in 2005.

Not just Wordsworth and Keats

"At that point, what I understood of poetry was what you do at school - your Wordsworth and your Keats and that's it," she says.

"In come Leeds Young Authors, and they're talking about growing up in Leeds and being young people, and I was like, 'I recognise that. I recognise those experiences of being young and frustrated and wanting a platform.'"

She swiftly joined and has now had two plays staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - Boi Boi Is Dead and Nine Lives - before Ode To Leeds.

image copyrightAnthony Robling
image captionLeeds Young Authors has been running for 14 years

"What's wonderful is that in the play you have a diverse mix of characters," Nyoni says. "For me what was important is understanding that poetry doesn't necessarily stem from a particular white middle-class man."

Performance poetry is hip, thanks to writers such as Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish. But Nyoni says the talent has been there for years - if anybody had looked.

"What is happening now in the popularity and the rise in spoken word is you're finding all these writers who are coming up. But Leeds has been doing it for years. These writers have always been coming up - but nobody's been looking at them."

The power of poetry

The nation has recently had a powerful reminder of the emotional force of the spoken word.

After the suicide bomb attack at Manchester Arena on 22 May, two poems in particular - This Is The Place by Tony Walsh and another poem by Ryan Williams - captured the mood.

"It's like Maya Angelou says, you will always remember how somebody makes you feel," says Nyoni. "That's what poetry does. It reminds you that this is how you feel.

"And I think that's why it's been so effective post-Manchester, post-London [Bridge terror attack]. The nation goes, 'This is how we feel. You're not going to intimidate us.'"

'Give them the platform and they will speak'

In her play, the characters use poetry at times to express their exasperation with the state of the world, and why they don't just want to stand by and watch.

Nyoni herself gets exasperated when she recalls the response from one audience member who asked why the characters were so political.

"I was like, 'If you don't know that young people are political and are socially aware, the problem isn't with them, it's with you, because you're not looking and you're not listening to what they're saying.'

"To me, that's what's important and that's what Leeds Young Authors highlighted. Give them the platform and they will speak.

"But if you don't give them that platform, you are silencing them."

Ode To Leeds is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until 1 July.

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