Nine Lives is so vivid that in the hour in which actor Lladel Bryant fills the stage you think he is telling his own story.
But he’s not. He’s an actor (and a former UK Young Citizen of the Year 2006) playing Ishmael, who has fled to Leeds after being outed as gay in Zimbabwe.
The eight lives in his monologue are the people he meets (or in the case of his former lover, talks to on the phone) between walking onto the stage and setting down his suitcase and later picking up his suitcase and leaving, still looking for a place to call home.
The six samples of life in Britain he brings to life were conjured up by writer Zodwa Nyoni (“I’m from Leeds and I was born in Zimbabwe”). They are café owner Cath, in her 50s; a cheerful teenage Nigerian asylum-seeker; Ricky, a 15-year-old streetwise truant with a pitbull; 19-year-old single mum, Bex; an Iranian refugee, Cyrus, hoping his wide and children will be allowed to join him; and Miss Marie Monroe, drag queen host at a Leeds night club.
Ishmael lives in Flat 46, 12th floor, Burnstall Heights: “Temporary accommodation, not home. This is Section 95, not leave to remain. This is where you will wait. This is all that you’ll get.”
It’s bleak, as shown by the lightbulb he takes from his pocket and screws into the holder above his head, his first action after depositing his case. Then he starts recounting his observations of the lives around him; his fears about being outed for a second time; his relief at genuine human contact with the disarmingly straightforward Bex; his all-too-brief emotional release as he dons heels and dances for joy; and his ever-present concern about asylum procedures and their all-encompassing effects on his life:
“The letter says I’m a reference number I’m an applicant. I’m circumstances. I’m categories. I’m outcomes. But it doesn’t say that I’m real. It doesn’t say that I exist. That I laugh. I cry. I dance. I dream. I wonder. I want. I think. I question. It doesn’t say that I’m a person…”
Also read Daniel's interview with the playwright: Zodwa Nyoni
One man, two countries, nine lives
Asylum and discrimination are at the centre of Nine Lives, a one-hour, one-man, nine-character play – by a migrant – that has been on tour since June and comes to London in January.
Writer Zodwa Nyoni is from a Zimbabwean family who live in Britain and her character, Ishmael, is Zimbabwean. But the play is from her head and heart, not her experience.
Nevertheless, it’s rooted in reality.
She had a friend who lived in a Leeds tower block and she bumped into during a trip to Zimbabwe. He had been deported and told her his story. It opened a new world, and she began researching. “I wanted to find what it really meant to be an asylum-seeker.”
What she found is common currency for those who have sought asylum but which is unknown to most Britons: the waiting, the assumption of dishonesty, delays, the paperwork, the invasive questions, the frustrations, the dehumanisation, the cramped life, the bureaucracy, the mental stress.
Ishmael faces another layer of embarrassment, stress, disbelief, hardship and Kafkaesque questioning because he’s gay (“What does a penis feel like?”)
Making the play a one-man performance is intended to accentuate the difficulty, the gruelling nature of the application process (as well as humanising it for an audience), so the impact comes from the words and the performance. Words are no problem for Nyoni. She was a poet before she fell in love with theatre and story-telling (“but poetry is still there”) and words pour out of her.
One reviewer wrote: “Nyoni’s interweaving of naturalism and poetry is superb and lifts this show far beyond documentary, into unforgettable solo drama about one of the key experiences of our time.”
I haven’t seen it yet, but others have said it’s full of humour and humanity.
Asked by a BBC Arts programme what she wants audiences to get from the play, she replied, “An understanding … or even just begin to question what you read in the newspaper, what you hear on television. For me this was about putting the human story about one person. What you always get is a mass number - 2,000 asylum-seekers, 5,000, 6,000. But what does that mass really mean? Who are the people behind that number? It’s about putting the human story behind one person.”
* Nine Lives, by Zodwa Nyoni, is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 until 30 January. Info: 7503 1646
Gala Night: 14 January, from 7.30pm. Performance starts 8pm. Special performance, followed by a private reception with special guests. Hosted in support of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG). £25
Platforma Jam: 16 January, 5.30-6.30pm. Five friends from four continents bring you songs, sounds and spoken word from Ethiopia, Palestine and beyond. Featuring Haymanot Tesfa, Leila Seguin, Duncan Mortimer, EbsilBaz, Emily Zaraa. Free
Music from Zimbabwe: 23 January, 5.30-6.30pm. A trio of mbira players based in the UK: Fungai Gahadzikwa, Doug Langley and Takudzwa Mukiwa. Free
Bards Without Borders: 30 January, 5.30-6.30pm. Spoken word inspired by the work of William Shakespeare by performers from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Free
+ In the published version of her play, Nyoni writes that “In the last year there has been a surge of dehumanising reports in the public domain regarding refugees and asylum seekers, in addition to negative uses of the word immigration. This play hopes to connect us all back to the human stories. It aims to counter generalisations about migration and assumptions about refugees and asylum seekers.”
+ Also: a drama about the impact of a Uganda newspaper’s sensationalist outing of homosexuals, The Rolling Stone, is at the Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 2SA, from 14 to 20 February. Info: 8940 3633/ orangetreetheatre.co.uk
+ http://oneworld.org/2016/01/03/when-personal-becomes-political-in-uganda/ When personal becomes political in Uganda