4/5 Stars

★★★★ A Candid Exploration of Contemporary Racism

Abigail Bryant reviews Labels at Vault Festival

labels-1Running from the 1st – 5th March, Joe Sellman-Leava brings this one man show to the Vaults festival, chronicling his mixed race heritage and upbringing to explore the problematic nature of how we label ourselves and each other. An autobiographical account of language and race, it confronts the, at times, uncomfortable with authenticity, humour and genuine emotion. It also poses important questions around less obvious but still dangerous forms of social and cultural labelling, and the mediated discourse of fear channelled into our daily lives.

Joe does brilliantly as a solo act, and during his recollections he transitions from place to time to character with impeccable ease, a testament to his skill in stimulating an audience’s imagination. The timing of the show is also impressively slick, never feeling slow or rushed and with the perfect amount of audience participation to feel intimately engaged but peripheral to the individual experiences at hand.  He exudes both vulnerability and strength when it’s needed, and recites personal memories whilst maintaining a sense of broader relevance by referencing current affairs and cultural figureheads. The impact of Joe’s story relies on the relationship between past and present, and Joe treats both with a sense of legitimacy and truth. The highlight of the show is the final fifteen minutes, as it crescendos into bursts of rage, reflection, and a philosophical unravelling of what’s come before, whilst consistently maintaining his relatable charm throughout.

labels-2There are other external elements that contribute to the show’s impact, including clever use of lighting, simple yet provocative props, and music. The powerful and thunderous rattle of trains passing above the stage only heightens moments of tension, adding another dimension of performance and reminding us of our detachment from the outside world and intimate immersion into Joe’s world.

Throughout the show, Joe’s black t-shirt becomes cluttered with overlapping sticky labels which he applies himself as he recounts experiences – from overtly racist attacks to romantic heartbreak to geographical moves. This works really well as a metaphor for the complexity of how we linguistically classify ourselves through different lenses as we become older, and as a result of other’s prejudices, insecurities or ignorance. He honestly and intelligently brings into question our own implicit compliance in cultural discourse and discrimination, and most importantly addresses the absurdity of how we define an ‘illegal immigrant’ and how, when and why we shift from curiosity to fear.

Labels is an hour of thought-provoking, inspiring and engaging storytelling with the perfect hint of humour and fun. It is deeply personal but profoundly universal, and especially poignant in 2017.

Abigail Bryant

Labels runs at the Vaults Festival until the 5th March.

Categories: 4/5 Stars, review

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