Joe Sellman-Leava opens Labels with quotes from Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Nick Griffin, Idi Amin and Donald Trump, to name but a few. Within the first two minutes the audience are hit with a barrage of racial abuse, mandates to force out the immigrants and send them back as if trying to prevent an alien invasion.
Yet in direct contrast with the forceful delivery and spiteful hate speech, Sellman-Leava retracts into himself and remains honest, humble and shy. He is always startlingly aware of his audience, at times seemingly embarrassed to be on stage performing and telling his story. Instantly we fall in love with him, his character, his personality. We want to be his friend and his protector as he tells us about the names he was called on a daily basis growing up we want to fight off the school bullies, the university ignorance and the leeches that inhabit online dating sites.
Labels is an honest account of his heritage and the prejudices that his family have faced over the years. Why would his mother marry a black man? Why would his father have a foreign name and expect to get a job? Why would Joe not understand that he can’t possibly be from Cheltenham or Devon when he doesn’t have white skin? These names, these labels, these categorisations cling to him with an adhesive persistence, covering his body with assumptions and generalisations. We lose the person underneath with the desire to put him in a box, understand him and as such form a consensual opinion, a judgement about his worth.
Sellman-Leava presents his father with reverence and pride, a man able to turn the other cheek and continue to instil in his children values of tolerance, openness and acceptance. Sellman-Leava’s performance is in itself worthy of the respect he has for his father – ultimately this story showcases Sellman-Leava as a role model. He is a man who resists quick judgements; a writer that puts his pain and his persona on the line for others to bear witness to; a performer that is genuinely excited and humbled to be given the chance to stand in front others, constantly questioning if he deserves or is worthy to take to the stage.
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