Friday, April 12

Zodwa Nyoni talks about new musical Chisholm for President!

Chisholm for President! is a brand-new musical inspired by the remarkable journey of the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, and who then dared to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972.

Playwright Zodwa Nyoni has teamed up with Leeds based rapper Testament to develop a musical that traces Shirley Chisholm’s life as the daughter of immigrants who then battled racism and misogyny to win a seat in Congress.

Chisholm was known for her advocacy on behalf of women, minorities, stood with the gay community, was way ahead of her time on environmental protections, fought against child poverty and was noted for her opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  

Chisholm served in Congress for seven terms before passing away in 2005, and as a mark of her legacy Kamala Harris wore purple in her honour when accepting the vice-presidential nomination in 2021.

The musical is directed by Alex Chisholm who was a key player in the new Bradford Opera Festival, and she has been working closely with Testament on new songs heavily influenced by the political soul and funk of the late sixties and early seventies. 

Our Features Editor Paul Clarke spoke to Zodwa Nyoni to find out more about the legacy of Shirley Chisholm and what this talented writer has found out from her first foray into musicals.

We know Shirley battled her way into Congress and unsuccessfully ran for President but what sort of woman was she?

I think as a figure outside of politics she was somebody who comes across in the research as somebody incredibly resilient and principled. She worked as a schoolteacher, and had history in Brooklyn, New York, and her family came from Barbados. So, it’s been really interesting looking at the story of her family’s migration from the Caribbean into America and how you set a legacy in the United States. She went for the highest office, but what’s always been really crucial to her story is how do you put in the grassroots work. How do you ensure that you always keep the people at the heart of the work that you do?

It seems mind boggling that it took until 1968 to elect a black woman to Congress?

Is it? When we look at the history of racism, the civil rights movement and segregation, we are still existing in a time where we still getting the first black something even today in 2024. So, it’s not surprising to me, but I think in regard to Shirley that she had her convictions to push through. She was going to make an impact regardless.

So how does this musical bring that rich legacy to life?

I think what the musical does is ultimately look at what it takes for her to get to that point of level when we’re looking at what she was up against. I think the way it becomes really relevant is that when we consider the nature of politics, society and inequality is that she becomes a testament of that, and her story is still applicable about what it takes to get to the highest offices and for you to make an impact. There are still so many roadblocks in front of us, particularly if you are people of colour. I think that’s still there.

This is a story that naturally lends itself to a drama so why choose to do it as a musical? 

When it was first presented to me by Alex, she was really interested in the ways we could tell her story. The way music exists, there’s so much story that you can pack into eight single songs, and this is also kind of a new venture for me. I’m learning so much about what music can do, and I think there’s the element of it being able to have that range of the joyous movement, the protest, the sadness and the anger within the music. As a format it’s really interesting to be able to see what happens when you utilise the musical to exploit a particular time. What does funk and soul bring to the story and politics?

We know you can write but how have you found working with Testament?

If there’s one thing, I am very certain about myself and my ability is that I am not a musician, but it’s been so wonderful to be able to sit with Testament and how do we build the book and the music. As a writer I would naturally go and do the research and then I’ll create a scene. It’s interesting handing that over to Testament and seeing him mould the scene into verses and choruses and see where melody comes in. For me, my brain doesn’t naturally go to music and having that space and partnership to play and create music has been really, really fascinating.

Shirley Chisholm may have been a titan of the Civil Rights movement but how will her story translate to the British audience?

What Shirley’s Chisholm’s story does is brings us back down to doing things for the people about the people, and she has been a beacon of that. It’s been interesting looking at her story, and how do we go back to that grassroots thing thinking about making change, and where and how does change happen? I think that’s something that feels very applicable beyond just America, and today we’re having some big conversations about politics and politicians, but actually within those spaces are people, the work that should be done should be for the people. Shirley stood her ground on that. and I’m hoping that audiences that have come in feel they are having conversations about what change looks like for them.

Chisholm for President! will have two showcase concerts at Slung Low’s Warehouse on Friday 12th April and at the Southbank Centre in London on Saturday 13th April.