J’Ouvert at Theatre 503
Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert imagines carnival in Notting Hill through the familiar gaze of two friends who experience the joys and falls of the festival through dialogue, soca music, feathers, sequins and dance. Directed by Rebekah Murrell, this play looks at what brings people together to take to the streets in celebration of identity and the roots of a multicultural hub that continues to thrust meaning and judgement onto the unknown body of the other. The production brings to light the reality of a space which many cultures cohabit, but in which they do not exist on equal grounds, as we witness residents banging on closed windows to remove the perceived threat of difference from their doorsteps.
Through intimacy and humour, Saphire Joy (Jade) and Sharla Smith (Nadine) explore their agencies as young black women trying to find their place in a world that they thought was theirs, but where their bodies are frequently under threat from the sexual politics of carnival. Joy and Smith’s interpretation of the men who demand the women’s bodies through imagined rights adds an interesting and very funny dimension to the piece, where we are offered not just a nuanced representation of how a woman is made to feel but also how she views the body from which danger is presented.
The highlight, however, is the two actors’ interpretation of a pair of old Caribbean men who run a little stall selling horns, bells and flags. Enter a well-meaning but problematic Nisha (Annice Bopari) and the three, encouraged by laughter and cheers from the audience, bring the scene to life as if carnival really is here in this moment: a “mash-up” of cultures, people and their ideas, struggles, histories and desires.
Smith’s monologues with ghosts of the past highlight an important element that makes the carnival a sacred space of history, ritual, memory, art, meaning and resistance, echoing Fanon’s notion of dance as the effort of the whole community to exorcise itself. J’Ouvert is the effort of two young women to exorcise and liberate themselves, to imagine their empowerment and their reclamation for what is rightfully theirs – their bodies, their space, their voice – culminating in Joy’s powerful speech at the end of the show.
Photo: Helen Murray
J’Ouvert is at Theatre 503 from 1st June until 22nd June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.