Ode to Leeds by Zodwa Nyoni
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds [22.06.17]
Trying to find your way with a broken compass for a heart… my body is a country I fled a long time ago…
Welcome to Leeds. A city in which daily life gives young wordsmiths ammunition to write and craft meanings within a metaphorical landscape. A city in which words are able to unite people who walk different paths a daily. A city that is a home, a home to: Queenie, Mack, Darcy, Devika and Theo. We join the quintet as they prepare to compete at Brave New Voices in the States. Their journey is reflective of the real experiences of young people today, stretching from young carers and broken homes, to falling in love and just trying to get lucky. There is a very obvious kinesis between the characters lives that is beautifully tied together through their words and the large scale google maps style invitation to specific corners of Leeds.
Zodwa Nyoni’s Ode to Leeds is as much about Leeds, as it is about poetry. What Zodwa has successfully managed to do is craft a narrative that is both accessible and realistic. Each of the characters have been created with such an honesty that every young poet who watches this will observe each character and be reminded of someone they know. Or in my case, a poet I know. Zodwa has managed to carefully develop her characters so that they are individuals and so that there is distinctions between their poetic voices – the latter of which is quite an impressive achievement.
The poetry within this piece humoured me often. There’s something about listening to slam poetry when you’re no longer part of that community that really takes you back to a time when you were much younger and energised in a very different way. A time when you lived and breathed poetry and, writing with your collective was the most important point of the week. Watching each other perform and giving each other clicks when lines were absolute fire and whoever was on stage had either moved you to tears of sadness and tears of laughter. Talking and chanting and rhyming about what mattered (with the classic poet’s intonation pattern) and loving life whilst you did it. Darcy’s love poem to Theo riffed with Devika’s identity challenge is a reminder that when young poets speak, they speak of what they know and what they know they want the world to hear.
But, it is Queenie’s poem that is the stand out moment in this piece of theatre. Emotively performed by Genesis Lynea, this poem moved in a way that it felt as though the narrative had known me my whole life. There was talk of the continued attempt to make oneself palatable, angry black girl syndrome (always diagnosed by those who are not black girls) and displacement from home. Only truly honest poetry can fill a theatre and silence everyone in the room so that their breathing is merely an accompaniment to the language.
Whilst this piece was brilliantly crafted, I was slightly confused following Queenie’s poem by the sudden realisation that Darcy had died and wondered if I had missed a trick. Maybe we were meant to be surprised or maybe we were meant to locate a trail of clues (which I had clearly missed). Despite being a bit confused though, I feel that the poetry Zodwa has written in this piece, whilst having its own intentions, is able to permit audience members to journey wherever they please with it. And that in itself, on reflection, more than balances out a little bit of confusion.
Verdict: In the space of 2 hours, Zodwa allowed me to relive seven years of the rise and fall of my life in poetry. This is the sort of play that every poet needs to see. It’s also the sort of play that creates a window of opportunity for non-poets to observe the the world of poetry and slam culture and the space of young people within that. Yes, Zodwa did a good job.