Originally published on Exeunt
Joe Sellman-Leava opens Labels with quotes from Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Nick Griffin, Idi Amin and Donald Trump, to name but a few. In 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. Independence Day, this is not.
But, 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 has been 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 (no names disclosed here, but suffice to say that swiping right should instil in a people a sense of decency).
Labels is an honest account of his heritage, 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 for 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 modern man that resists quick judgements; a writer that puts his pain, 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.
Yes Joe, you deserve to be standing up there. It is us that thank you for opening our eyes, stirring in us anger and passion and desire to change ourselves, our society and do away with all the hate in the world. Where do we all come from? Earth. The only response, the only label, that matters.
Director: Katharina Reinthaller
Producer: Michael Woodman for Worklight Theatre
Writer/ Performer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Design: Charlotte Anderson; Phil Hewitt (Lighting & Sound)
Labels plays The Vaults until 5 March. For more details, see the website.