By Giles Mountford
It is a privilege to be able to follow your dreams. It is a privilege to be able to nourish your talent. It is also a privilege to do anything that moves beyond providing for yourself and your family.
This is a painful fact often overlooked by many who pride themselves on fulfilling their ambitions based on their hard work and talent. That their privilege gave them a remarkable head start over other people of equal, or greater, talent and work ethic is an uncomfortable truth. It is a truth that Sophia Leonie is not only acutely aware of, it is her truth.
Now on the cusp of launching her latest play and a TV Pilot her journey is anything other than typical compared to the majority of those who make their living in broadcast media and the arts.
It is a privilege to be able to follow your dreams.
Photo by Suzi Corker
Photo by Suzi Corker
Born into a working-class family to a Zimbabwean father and English-German mother, who separated before she knew any different, meant that economic survival has always had to take priority over her pursuit of a career in writing and performing.
Thanks to her parents’ influence, Sophia was immersed in books and language from an early age. Words fascinated her so much that she compiled a notebook of every word she knew before she was even able to construct a functional written sentence,
“I’d always have to be in bed for six right into my teens – way before my friends. No TV in the room. I was allowed one hour to read. I loved reading and being read to. My mum was into science fiction and fantasy. I vividly remember her reading me The Hobbit”.
Describing herself as a “painfully shy” child, books proved both sanctuary and inspiration. Her love of reading spilled over into a love of writing. Sophia’s teenage years saw her leave behind the fantasy novels as she developed a burgeoning social conscience and desire to right wrongs: a passion that burns as fiercely today.
“My dad, who was a teacher, lived nearby and stayed in close touch. He helped with my political education. He explained to me about Zimbabwe and the fight for independence, about South Africa and Nelson Mandela. He taught me to question the world”.
I want to write and create art that initiates change: that represents the under-represented.
Photo by Kwaku Kyei
Between the ages of 14 and 17 she gained her journalistic grounding working for Exposure Magazine. Writing moved beyond simple pleasure to providing a means to address social injustice: the keyboard became her primary weapon in her fight against inequality. She began to hone the skill of a journalistic writer: building arguments, challenging her own perspective, researching and constructing impassioned first-person essays. The foundations were laid for her current work,
“I want to write and create art that initiates change: that represents the under-represented”.
Writing, despite providing the tools to craft a powerful, confident and compelling voice on the page, is rarely a means to overcome social anxiety. For Sophia, this came from acting who, despite her introversion and shyness, relished the feeling of performing on stage.
As one of the under-represented herself, it took many years of working as a secondary school teacher to save the necessary money before achieving a place at the prestigious East 15 Drama School. A year that, despite fraught with challenges, helped pave the way to the next stage of her development as an artist and a person.
“The shyness didn’t just disappear. It followed me through adulthood but drama, as well as enabling me to discover the joy of performance, taught me ways to enter a room and make like I belonged. And in time I began to feel it rather than fake it”.
It was at the intersection of teaching, writing and acting that Sophia began to shape a new style: telling the stories of the untold, unwelcome and ignored.
“My initial motivation was frustration. There are limited roles for women of colour and those that exist are all too often stereotypical characters. And even those roles go to a limited number of people”.
After scripting and producing a short film, ‘Love And More Important Things’ that premiered at the British Urban Film Festival Sophia reached a turning point,
“After seeing it brought to life on the screen at the Odeon it was empowering. It might not be the greatest film ever made but it showed me possibilities”.
It was also an experience that taught Sophia more than the skills required to deliver such a production,
“There needs to be more women of colour behind the scenes as well as in front of camera. It’s currently an industry dominated by white men. That’s the only way we can achieve real change “
It took a global pandemic to remove everyday distractions and enable an audience to focus on the injustices wrought on black people.
Photo by Susan Dale
Fast forward to the 2020 Pandemic and Sophia found herself doing a Reading on Zoom for her new play during lockdown.
The play tells the story of a young girl growing up in 90s: illustrating that issues dealt with by today’s youth on social media (from slut shaming to bullying) existed then, only in the material world. This is set against the background buzz of the new millennium that failed to deliver the hoped-for reality of a new, better world.
For Sophia the Lockdown experience was initially, “Horrible – it felt like Armageddon. It was creatively paralysing”. However, like many people she eventually adapted to the restrictions put in place by COVID-19 and found herself re-visiting old projects and writing with revitalised verve.
Then the world woke up.
It took a global pandemic to remove everyday distractions and enable an audience to focus on the injustices wrought on black people. A global movement was ignited after the catalyst of the horrific filmed murder of George Floyd. Grief, outrage and pain fused together as millions of people took to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter.
It feels that, for once, something may actually be changing.
Poster created by Andre Sanganoo-Dixon
Despite a lifetime of trying to draw peoples’ attention to systemic racism and its victims, Sophia is not without hope that the insistent and vociferous demand for change is here to stay,
“It feels that, for once, something may actually be changing. It’s opened up conversations about race and racism that for too long have been difficult or impossible to have. Before, if you even dared to speak up about racism the barriers went up – as if the possibility of being called out for acting in a racist way was worse than actually being subjected to racism. Those barriers, if not removed, have been reduced. It’s an exciting time. I hope it continues to move offline and start to make a difference in real life”.
It’s a difference that her own work continues to contribute to. As an activist and an artist Sophia epitomises the zeitgeist. With the Play and TV Pilot she has a platform for her voice like never before, a platform that will not only contribute to the change she wants to see but also showcases the fruition of her talents and labour,
“I love writing and look forward to seeing things develop. But to actually see your work and have it acknowledged: that’s the cherry on the top”
Sophia Leonie has overcome barriers of inequality, prejudice and her own shyness to have her voice heard. Her achievements are despite, not because of privilege. But with Sophia and others in the vanguard of change, perhaps that change really is going to come: a change that can make following your dream no longer a privilege: but a right.
Photo by Ori Jones
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