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Blog: Meet Nine Lives playwright Zodwa Nyoni

Nine Lives features real-life, personal and intimate refugees stories that get behind the headlines. We spoke to Zimbabwe-born playwright Zodwa Nyoni about how she created the show and why it's such a important piece of work.

For people who haven’t come across you or your work before can you introduce yourself?

My name is Zodwa Nyoni. I am a playwright and poet from Leeds who began writing 11 years ago as a member of Leeds Young Authors (LYA), a performance poetry organisation.

Through weekly writing sessions the Artistic Director, Khadijah Ibrahiim, and guest international artists shared their craft of writing with us. It was a brilliant training ground for me which led to opportunities all over the world.

I performed my poetry at national venues such as the British Museum, Ilkley Literature Festival and Southbank Centre and at 17 I represented the UK at the Brave New Voices (BNV) International Poetry Festival in New York City, USA..

I was running around New York with hundreds of young poets from around the world. Poetry was being heard on rooftops, in poetry cafes and street corners. This wasn’t like the poetry I was reading in school. It was raw and I saw myself in it.


What made you start writing?

I was fascinated by words and the endless possibilities that you could create when telling stories. I wanted to explore other forms.

By 2010 I had written my first play through the Street Voices 3 course led by Freedom Studios in Bradford whilst also studying performing arts; and later did an MA in Writing for Performance and Publication at Leeds University.

My first full length play Boi Boiis Dead with the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) won the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme in 2014.

As a result, I was made writer in residence at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Boi Boi is Dead was produced the following year with WYP, Tiata Fahodzi and Watford Palace Theatre.

Nine Lives was written during my residency as part of a Play, a Pie and a Pint. After a short tour in 2014, Nine Lives toured nationally and internationally to venues and events such as the Houses of Parliament, Arcola Theatre and Paris Fringe Festival.

Since the very first performance Lladel Bryant (Ishmael) has been part of the production. He’s such a joy to watch. We met as teenagers, back in the poetry days. He’s gone from strength to strength.

Where did the inspiration to write Nine Lives come from and how did you approach writing it?

Nine Lives was inspired by a trip that I had taken to Zimbabwe in 2013. Whilst I was there I ran into a friend who had been deported back. We discussed life together and the future; all the while unbeknownst to me he was going through the process of claiming for asylum.

Upon my return I started researching the process of claiming for asylum. I wanted to get an insight on how one lives for years in a state of limbo, hoping to come out on the other side and start to rebuild their lives so I read news articles, Home Office documents and met with asylum seekers and refugees.


How did you come across Ishmael’s story and why did it appeal to you?

Every experience is different when it comes to the immigration process. You cannot speak about asylum seekers and refugees as if they are one homogeneous group. A family with young children goes through a different process and in comparison to a young gay man. These differences led to the development of Ishmael in the play.

Several blogs and websites spoke of the experiences of LGBT asylum seekers; an area I knew very little about. One blog had a list of questions which were posed to a bi-sexual asylum seeker during an interview. The intrusiveness and explicitness of the questions that the Home Office could ask in search of evidence to prove a person’s claims took me aback. When your sexual orientation is a secret in order to secure your safety, the prospect of divulging personal information can be a crippling experience. There were even accounts of people submitting sex tapes in hope of being believed; that is dehumanizing.

In 2010, the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group found out that LGBT asylum seekers were turned down at a rate of 98- 99%. Fast track processes were still in place during my research and refused asylum seekers were expected to return to violently homophobic countries where they are told to live discreetly.

All of this isn’t what’s talked about in the news and I had many questions.


Nine Lives address contemporary and relevant issues. Why do you feel these are important stories to share on the stage?

The immigration process in the UK is very complex but it is essential to do because to learn what is behind the rhetoric in the press. There is a distancing of asylum seekers and refugees, they're treated like others, not like us, not human. My aim was to put a human story behind the research and bring an audience closer to the issues that concern and affect our society.

Ishmael deals with identity issues, displacement, isolation, loneliness, loss of love and family. He finds parallels with other characters such as a 19 year old white single mum, a drag queen, and a middle aged Iranian man.

Having a wider variety of stories, characters and voices on our stages enriches our consciousness of the world. The arts for me have been a place where I've learnt about the spaces that I inhibit or spaces I have never been. I've learnt about people that I've meet or would never meet.

What would you like the people to take away from watching Nine Lives?

The conversations after the play with the audience have been a joy. We’ve met people who’ve seen themselves reflected in Ishmael’s story and for example have, Azure cards (prepayment cards for those on Section 4 support.) on their persons. For audiences who don’t know the categorizations find out more about what support asylum seekers and refugees actually get. Conversations are had; not all are good but are still necessary. Ishmael is part of our lives, as much as we are in his.


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Nine Lives

Nine Lives threads together humour and humanity to tell real-life, personal and intimate stories behind the asylum headlines.

Find out more >>

Experience Ishmael’s story

Nine Lives threads together humour and humanity to tell real-life, personal and intimate stories behind the asylum headlines.

Find out more >>