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Photo credit @ Stephen Beeny

Interview: A hot take on teenage troubles

Writer/ performer Tatenda Naomi Matsvai on new play Hot Orange

With cold winter days creeping up on us, let’s take the opportunity to sidestep instead into a hot, orange summer down at the Half Moon Theatre. Hot Orange is their latest production for young people ages 13+ and adults too. It’s a brand new piece of work; an immersive story of two friends who navigate the complexities of growing up in culturally challenging circumstances, and their changing relationships.

We were delighted to get the chance to speak to Tatenda Naomi Matsvai, who not only appears in the play but is co-writer (along with Amal Khalidi), and ask them to spill the juice on what to expect.

Hi Tatenda. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us about this new piece of writing. Firstly, can you tell us something about the story and its themes?

The story follows two young people, Amina and Tandeki, as they reconcile their past hurts in the wake of heartbreak. It’s playful, poetic and punchy at times – they are both brutal and direct when either has failed in meeting expectations around broken promises and crossed boundaries.

The heart of the play is about young love, friendship, self-discovery and self-acceptance. Both characters must confront how they may have hurt each other, but also how they’ve been affected by their cultural upbringing. Eventually, they both find their feet as the play climaxes in the most honest and messy fashion, as they choose who they want to be and what they will and won’t accept from people around them.

Are the characters in the play based on real people you have encountered, or are they perhaps just representative of a wider social base?

I think the characters have pieces of both of us (Amal and me) and the people who shaped us, as we discovered ourselves in our early years. They are also part of the people we wish we could’ve been, or had had around us when we were younger. They’re definitely part-real, part-mythic depictions of powerful personalities that shape a person’s self-identification. They are role models. We wish we had the same freedoms to push against authoritarian powers to assert self-love and self-acceptance.

You’ve created an immersive production set on a basketball court in the summer. How is that going to work out for the audience this winter?

Well, the theatre is hot and the lights flood the space – not only with light but heat, plus the immersive nature of the show means we’ll build up body heat by being beside each other throughout the show.

The show itself is pretty fast-paced and even in rehearsals without the lights I’ve been breaking sweat as a performer, so I’m sure we’ll be keeping the audience warm with it all.

This is your debut production as a writer and you’ve co-written the piece with Amal Khalidi. How did you two get together in the first place, and what skills do each of you bring to the table?

We met on another small project just before this and coincidentally three months after it ended, we wound up being paired together on a development programme run by Half Moon called Narratives of Empathy and Resilience, so our union on this project was all down to that.

Amal and I are both writers of spoken word and I think our poetic sensibilities informed the style of the piece. Large sections of the show are in verse – mainly the monologues and reflective sections –  and I think that comes from those skills.

Amal is such a visually succinct writer. One of the most impactful lines for me in the piece was written by them: “And my heart sunk to my feet and I kicked it with the bag of shopping I was carrying for mum”. I love how perfectly that line captures young heartbreak and that sinking feeling we get when we long for someone we’ve lost.

I think I’m a very musical writer so some of the text Tandeki speaks sounds like rapping or lyrics and I love the lilt or playful dance that allows for the character. I think it suits her quite well as she is quite free and light-spirited as a character. I think she sort of danced through life until she was knocked back by societal constructs that limited her.

What’s it like being a performer in your own work?

Awesome! The characters live in me because I wrote them. But it’s also complex because my writer brain wants to change things when they feel eggy – which is a privilege actors don’t often get – yet simultaneously puts me in silly internal battles with my inner critic, who honestly needn’t chat because the writing is awesome.

It’s been so exciting seeing how the creative team has interpreted the writing, making it their own and expanding what I thought was possible.

I am quite honoured to be playing a character I wrote because I felt like their voice was missing for young people who might have had similar experiences to me, and then to play that character is like full circle because I get to be a physical representation of closing that gap, and telling the story I missed as a young person.

Why is it important for this suggested age group to engage with these topics?

I think 13+ is such a pivotal moment in secondary school; we choose our GCSE’s, we are in the throngs of puberty and being given our first true tastes of agency over the future of our lives.

Will there be follow up workshops and activities around the show?

After every performance, we have an onstage Q&A session with the company, which allows everyone to ask questions and start a conversation about the themes and situations they have just seen. It also allows people to ask us about gateways into professional theatre, what advice we might give to people starting out, or just ask what a technical stage manager does, or how we go about learning our lines!

I hope that some of the audience will continue that discussion after the show, whether in school or on the basketball court with their friends.

Thanks so much to Tatenda for taking the time to tell us about this exciting production.

Hot Orange is aimed at ages 13+ and an adult audience. It runs at Half Moon Theatre from 9 – 14 November, then returns on 2 December. More information and bookings can be found here. For full tour dates and a trailer visit here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 16 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry, and being a Super Assessor for the Offies! Mary now insists on being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an award winning MA in London's Theatre and Performance.