Labels guide us through life, helping us distinguish grocery items from top-notch universities. Joe Sellman-Leava’s one man show deals with the darker side of labels, the ones that we give people out of fear; the labels that reflect our own societal prejudices. He uses these labels to discuss the history of race relations in the UK by means of his own lived experience, through a series of poetic monologues, conversations and physical labels.
With an indian father from Uganda and an English mother, Joe is no stranger to being labelled by various friends and acquaintances; he is from Cheltenham, but persistently bombarded with variations of the question “but where are you really from?”, leaving him conflicted over the use of labels in asserting his self-identity.
The conversational-style piece starts with a flurry of quotations, ranging from Enoch Powell, to Ed Miliband, Katie Hopkins and Idi Amin in reference to immigrants, migrants and refugees in comparison to Britain’s ‘indigenous’ population in order to highlight our obsession with labelling those who are different from ourselves. These prompt audible gasps, shocking the audience with racist rhetoric before Sellman-Leava leaps into his own story. The theme of acceptance is woven in and out of the entire show, and we return to the same quotation at the end, after Joe has assessed and unpicked the labels that he has endured, leaving the audience with the clear impression that a label is just that, and will never encapsulate an individual.
He asks how we can decipher between a good and a bad immigrant and how this decides if we let someone drown or let them in? Additionally, he also asks how can we label an immigrant illegal before they have even committed a crime. These historical and current debates are interwoven with personal, touching stories from Joe’s past. The conflict between cultural appreciation, assimilation and annihilation is illustrated with examples from Joe’s father’s experience as a second-generation immigrant. For instance, to find employment, Joe’s father anglicised his surname, reinventing himself and his family. Joe himself faced constant questions, confusion and ignorant comments from those around him, be it in his small village in Devon, his Russell Group University or even whilst swiping through Tinder.
Like most who have had to endure racism, Joe would pass off his bullies as ignorant fools that would never amount to anything. One of the more nuanced moments in the show is the parallel he draws between shouting racist labels in the street and labelling those bullies ignorant pigs. Which is worse and what is the difference? In the end, the labels we give people come from our own experience, curiosity and fears, which go on to feed our prejudices as we try to sum up the complexity of an individual within one simple, derogatory term.
The show bursts with sincerity as Sellman-Leava jumps from a measured reflection of his own experience to an angry tirade of historical references, with a due emphasis on the global rise in anti-immigration rhetoric. L and the oversimplification and intolerance they perpetuate. I would highly recommend it for an hour of important, honest reflection.