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Weathered Estates: in conversation with playwright Zodwa Nyoni

22 Feb 2017

It’s a drizzly Friday, and the mid-week slog is drifting in. Hours before my interview with playwright Zodwa Nyoni, I’d pictured the northern city of Hull as a distant industrial enigma. But after our conversation, it is transformed into a city teeming with colour and cultural offerings. Voted in 2013 as the UK’s City of Culture, this year Hull stands to hallmark itself well within the fabric of the UK’s cultural sector. Amongst the fruitful offerings of theatre billed on the program, the women’s voices that sing loud and distinct.

One of the voices is poet turned playwright Zodwa Nyoni. Back in May 2016, the Zimbabwean born, Leeds raised playwright joined writerly forces with Amy Skinner and young theatre company THE ROARING GIRLS, to produce Weathered Estates; a contemporary retelling of Euripides’ Women of Troy. Reigniting shared conversations around themes of asylum seekers, loss, migration, displacement and love. The play endeavours to present a mirage of such themes set across four different time periods, mapping Hull’s largely ignored history of conflict. In WW2, Hull was in fact the most bombed city outside of London; almost 95% of its houses were devastated between 1940-1941. Such facts and figures were overshadowed by the sheer disarray of post-blitz London. For Nyoni, the project Weathered Estates is intended to re-focus the lense on. “What I found dramatically, is that emotions that are human experiences, translate racially and culturally”, remarks Nyoni. It’s exactly this, our universal capacity to empathise with adversity and affliction that has enabled Nyoni to rework the classical text into a narrative that can be digested by all. “I wanted the audience to remember what it’s like to be ignored or forgotten…to focus the conversation around loss.”

Weathered Estates premiered at Hull University’s very own Donald Roy theatre this month. Ahead of its sold out show, Nyoni made time for gal-talk over Skype. Bright, bubbly and articulate, she exudes a glowing charisma that transmits easily across our servers. She speaks assiduously, pouring wisdom and warmth through her sherbet tones. Nyoni articulates her gowing enthusiasm for projects that look beyond her usual remit of personal identity politics.

Here, Nyoni delves a little deeper into establishing her mark as a female playwright of colour, and her favourites bits of Hull.

Zodwa Nyoni by Zanele Nyoni

gal-dem: What three things characterise the city of Hull to you?

Zodwa Nyoni: Hidden gems, be it stories, shops, cafes or histories. I’ve had the chance to hang out with people from Hull so they’ve shown me their favourite things. The water, the view of bridge when you’re coming into the city by train. It’s distinct. Also intemperate visiting The Deep when I was younger and walking under the shark tank. Language; I’m learning new colloquialisms and I’ve been saying Hull the wrong way. It’s ‘ull (less emphasis on the ‘h’).

As a cross-cultural woman, how do you feel your cultural diversity has informed your work?

When I first started writing with Leeds Young Authors, I talked a lot about my experiences and how migrating between Zimbabwe and England had shaped the person that I was becoming. I was never either/or, I was of both places and cultures. At times, one claimed me whilst the other rejected me. These countries had an impact on each other. Their histories are tied. One hates the other. One tries to forget the pain it’s caused on the other. I love both and grapple with an inner conflict of “where do loyalties lie?”.

Over time this developed to seeking out narratives which involved characters living in the margins, with dual existences, trying to work through their inner conflicts. In doing that, it expanded to the effects their societies have on them. The subject matters become wider as did my platforms. This led me from poetry to theatre. Each platform provided new tools and audiences. I will continue to grow and seek out new platforms and ways of communicating to audiences.

Tell us a bit about the process of playwriting. What impact do you hope your work provides?

Each writer’s process is different. What I enjoy is researching. It takes many forms. It can be going to new places, doing interviews with people, collecting objects that relate to a character or a place to listening to music. Anything that helps to build a framework for the world that I’m creating.  From that I start building the story, taking away what I don’t need and filling in the gaps with narrative. I leave it and go back it over a period of time. What fascinates me about Weathered Estates, my characters are set between 1940 -2016 so it’s a mix of Vera Lynn,  Andrew Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Hanson, Soul II Soul, S Club 7, Katy Perry and The Black Eyed Peas; to name a few.

Weathered Estates is part of an amazing programme of work taking place in Hull, the UK City of Culture, in 2017. Click here to find out what else is going on as part of Hull 2017. Weathered Estates will be appearing at WOW Hull later in the year.