Guest writer Emily Rueggeberg speaks to Sonny Nwachukwu about staying creative from home and how his upcoming piece Junior — a choreopoem based on his experience being black, gay and disabled — has transformed during lockdown, largely for the better.

Sonny and I begin with the usual small talk that so often bookends Zoom calls. There are the emotional check-ins and assessments of one another’s backdrops; shared spaces or those filled with personal effects for solitary living. Sonny’s surroundings consist of his childhood bedroom; a space where he could experiment with dance. It felt fitting then, to speak with him in that setting about his exploration of movement, starting as a pastime and later becoming a career.

While studying psychology at the University of Portsmouth, Sonny began taking occasional dance classes. It was in those spaces where he found his passion and began to train in earnest, taking a range of classes including Afrobeats. He says it wasn’t always easy though, as he was one of the few self-taught dancers among his peers, who had years of training behind them. Sonny talks about how, two or three years ago he started to move away from performing movements to choreographing ones for others to recreate. “I wanted to take a different route and choreograph, and I wanted to create stuff rather than people telling me what to do and how to move. I wanted to actually create something. That’s how it all started.”

Through his explorations with movement, a new creative format emerged for Sonny: writing. “My writing came [my] way after my dancing, really. And if I’m being honest, I only really started writing five years ago. And I would just write poetry randomly. There was a period in my life where I was injured and I couldn’t dance for over one year and in that period of time it was where I began to write more — different types of poetry and spoken word.”

From there, Sonny began experimenting with both language and movement, combining the two into choreopoems: choreographed poetry. When asked about the merits of merging different mediums together versus keeping them separate, Sonny responds decisively, speaking of the necessity for artforms to work in harmony with one another.

“I always see it as a marriage and you can’t have one without the other. And it works in unison. When the words can’t say it, the movement brings it up and then when the moves can’t express it, words bring it up. And it helps the layers grow. And it’s a kind of relationship I feel because even as humans when we speak we move and that’s a type of dance and a marriage in a way, how we communicate.”

His previous piece Circles (pictured), is a perfect example of Sonny’s ability to create and deliver strong stories through spoken word and dance. Directed, written and choreographed by Sonny (co-choreographed with Ffion Campbell Davies), the piece — a two-person choreopoem — “is an exploration into perpetual psychospiritual clashes, provoked by the traumas of slavery.”

We go on to discuss his current work in progress, Junior, previously titled Triple Threat, of which the first iteration premiered at Popular Union Theatre in 2019. The piece looks into Sonny’s life as a Black, gay, disabled artist and how, growing up, he navigated a myriad of pressures from society, religion and himself. Sonny explains how, after his performance of Triple Threat, he decided to expand upon it, writing an entire script.

Originally a one-person play starring himself, Sonny made the decision to step off the stage and into its wings, replacing himself and adding two additional actors. Self-care was at the core of Sonny’s decision to rearrange Junior’s cast, finding it exhausting to speak for such long periods of time due to his stammer. He weighed the merits of hiring an actor without a stammer to portray himself, ultimately deciding that was the best decision for two reasons. The first was to educate audiences about stammering and generate awareness, saying: “No one really knows what [stammering] is unless you know someone who has a stammer.” The second was to create an added psychological layer to the piece.

When asked why he chose to rename Triple Threat, Sonny explains that the original title didn’t properly express the show’s nature, which he describes as intimate and childlike. To Sonny, Triple Threat was more assertive and domineering. Instead, Sonny wanted to highlight the “slight innocence and childlike curiosity” he noticed when writing the piece.

Sonny’s work centres around identity and inclusion, two things that are receiving more attention than ever in the news and art world as renewed calls for social change by activists and the Black Lives Matter protests grow. Cultural organisations and local governments alike are being called upon to change outdated, racist and ableist policies and practices and act upon promises made. I asked Sonny how he’s felt the protests have impacted his work.

“It’s really interesting because when the protests started to happen, that was also when Circles was supposed to be shown as well. What I find quite interesting and important as well is, in the past it was seen that racism was a Black issue, although now, what people now realise is that it’s more of a white issue. So what are you doing to combat racism? And that’s partly to do with my work as well. It’s about working on yourself to then help others. So as a community, for racism to end, we all have to work on ourselves and work on our prejudices as well to then be aware of what’s happening.”

Sonny hopes that through the opportunities he’s received to develop his writing, choreographing and dancing, he can lift up others from marginalised groups and those underrepresented in the arts. “My goal is to bring people with me as well. People from backgrounds where it’s harder for us, and grow as a collective and a unit.”

Junior will premiere via Zoom on the 4th December, 2020. Visit Sonny’s website for more details.

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