The first time I went to Notting Hill Carnival, I was 8 years old and part of a Christian ministry’s float. While aunties and uncles I did not know handed evangelical fliers out to the crowd, I walked slowly and proudly in the main procession, wearing a pair of blue-green wings so heavy they came with their own set of wheels. I tired quickly and my trainers rubbed my feet raw but I didn’t want any of it to stop. Carnival, this distinct and temporary space with its colours and abundance, its inviting rhythms and seasoned foods, felt special, and being a small part of it made me feel special, too.
My most recent trip to Carnival was in 2017, and this time my understanding existed beyond the realms of just awe and wonder. That weekend, I thought about the fact that Notting Hill Carnival was conceived in response to a swath of racist attacks in Notting Hill, London and Nottingham. I also thought about its founder, Claudia Jones, a Trinidad-born communist, activist and journalist who had relocated to the UK from the USA. But as I danced and walked down the side streets of west London, what occupied the majority of my thoughts was the fire-ravaged tower standing closeby. Grenfell, the council-owned block of low-income flats, had burned from night into the next morning only months earlier, becoming a literal representation of systemic failure. It felt impossible to be in west London without considering the lives recently lost minutes away.
With Grenfell in mind, it also felt impossible to be at Carnival without considering the struggles faced by communities of activists and organisers in the 60s and 70s who gave us the freedom to revel and dance in those streets. And it felt dishonest and limiting to, in our sadness and mourning, not express joy, especially considering that dancing can often feel like a release that’s liberating beyond just entertainment. These mess of thoughts, and the emotions that came along with them, continue to colour the relationships many young Londoners of colour have with their city, their culture, and each other. The brilliance of J’Ouvert, the three-hander play by Yasmin Joseph currently showing at Theatre503, is its ability to consider the breadth of these complications and to offer characters who feel like genuine representations of women of colour born and raised in the city.
J’Ouvert, named after the street parties associated with Caribbean carnivals across the globe, opens with Nadine, a dark-skinned black girl in a dazzling red costume. The set, designed by Sandra Falase, features walls of cork board covered in neon posters, a sloping platform, behind which is a wall with a gaping black hole. The soundscape, designed by producer Mwen, mirrors the distant hum of Carnival, and provides the heartbeat for the rest of the play. Nadine stands in the middle of it all, moving slowly and with intention, speaking visually rich lines of verse that invoke the spirit of the “mother of carnival” Claudia Jones, and considering her own freedom to dance,and engage with the traditions of her culture. Played by Sharla Smith, Nadine has prepared a routine in the hopes of becoming “Face of the Fete” and winning an all expenses paid trip for two to St Lucia. She is aware of the cultural history, both of her home city and others like it across the globe, the undergirds the weekend’s celebrations. She wants to honour the sacrifices of her ancestors, honour the freedom their struggles brought, and for Nadine that means dancing. It means celebration.
“I’d take you with me,” Nadine says to her best friend Jade, who whoops and applauds while watching her practice her routine. Jade and Nadine’s friendship is one that clearly spans decades, and Joseph has managed to create characters who feel real ease and comfort with each other. This is reflected not only in the chemistry between actors Smith and Sapphire Joy who plays Jade, but also in how the characters move in relation to one another across the stage. Rebekah Murrell’s direction amplifies their moments of true kinship, and the choices made by Movement Director Shelley Maxwell have the effect of showcasing, and even celebrating, the beauty of their bikini-clad bodies.
Joy plays Jade, a character whose quick wit and cool demeanour make her narrative arc that much more compelling, with a physicality and comedic range that make her a pleasure to watch. Jade is feistier and in some ways more confident than her best friend, Nadine. When the two are confronted with the unwanted advances by a pair of men, (in well-crafted scenes that depict the random bursts of toxic masculine behaviour women regularly have to navigate at Carnival,) Jade has less patience than Nadine; she is not afraid to say and do exactly what she feels. However, this personal confidence does not readily translate on a public level, as throughout the play Jade struggles with feelings of civic powerlessness in response to her changing neighbourhood. She also feels immense indecision as to whether she should give a public speech on behalf of her new activist group, West London Rising. Jade’s new political outlook is at odds with Nadine’s understanding of what Carnival should be, and this gradually creates a wedge between them, culminating in a clash towards the end of the play: “How can you have a problem with my speech when you didn’t have the f—ing guts to finish your routine?” Jade spits at her friend in anger.
Jade’s preoccupation with her speech, and the political implications of Carnival in a neighbourhood that is feeling less and less like her own, is in part bolstered by her new friendship with self-proclaimed activist Nisha. In Nadine’s eyes, Nisha is a fickle interloper, a “Carnival Queen slash Queer activist today, [and an] astronaut tomorrow” who is intent on hijacking the meaning of Carnival. To Jade, Nisha is a trusted member of her community who wants to use her relative privilege for good. Over the course of the play, Nisha must figure out who she is for herself, and a moment of separation between her and the others leads her to the doorstep of two elderly Caribbean men who have lived in the neighbourhood for decades. Her conversation with Charles and Hubert, played expertly by Smith and Joy, functions as a way to explore generational ideas of identity and struggle across cultural lines, and is a real treat to watch. Nisha does eventually openly come to terms with herself, allowing Nadine to see things differently in the process. Jade also eventually gives her speech, and though it seems somewhat trite and unnecessarily distinct from her original voice, by this time Nadine is on board, and Jade’s words have the effect of simultaneously moving the crowd and helping her realise her own political agency.
What begins as three young women with seemingly frivolous, unclear and short-sighted ideas, ends as a group who acknowledge the potential of their collective power. Despite their clear differences, each of their perspectives are shown to be equally important: it is good and radical to seek joy in a world intent on bringing you pain, it is important to find your own political voice, and it is necessary to come together and work toward shared freedom.
In J’Ouvert, Carnival is a vehicle for young women of colour to learn about their histories and their personal and political agency in their home city. Joseph’s writing is poetic and evocative, and she displays a real talent for honestly rendering characters rarely seen on stage. It was refreshing to see a story about black Caribbean culture, and the related nuances of Black British diasporic experience, being told through the lens of black women both on and off the page. Not only are the actors black and brown women, the writer and director are black women, and producer Tobi Kyeremateng (also a black woman) committed to building an artistic team of majority black female and non-binary people, ensuring that everything from the lighting, to the sound, to the stage management, was approached with a keen and intuitive understanding of the characters, their stories, and the authenticity of their cultures. This is a refreshing change in an industry that can often feel to be approaching issues of lacking representation at a piecemeal rate.
Joseph, Kyeremanteng and Murrell have formed a theatre company, BadBreed, together. I look forward to BadBreed continuing to realise the potential of their collective power, much like the women in J’Ouvert.
J’Ouvert is on at Theatre503 till 22nd June. More info here.