J’Ouvert play captures the bliss of carnival through the eyes of young British Caribbean women

Photography by Helen Murray

I often jokingly say that Notting Hill Carnival is my birthright as a black British Jamaican. Whilst my statement is normally in jest as an excuse to never miss the best two-day celebration London has to offer, J’Ouvert at Theatre503 truly and beautifully reiterated the cultural and historical significance that carnival holds for Carribean people in the UK. J’Ouvert, a word I hadn’t come across before, denotes the official start to carnival in the Carribean.

From Theatre503’s resident playwright Yasmin Joseph and Rebekah Murrell from National’s Nine Night (in her directorial debut), J’Ouvert is honest, hilarious, and, at points, harrowing. It explores the black British experience against the backdrop of one of the world’s biggest street carnivals; a snapshot into a day in the life of two best friends, Nadine and Jade, plus their friend Nisha, as they follow a float in red feathered costumes. They dance, find food and trace histories.

Just before the play started, we were informed that the original starring actors, Yvette Bokaye and Nicôle Lecky, had been replaced by Sapphire Joy and Sharla Smith. This meant that Sharla was reading from the script, but apart from that, to their credit, you would have had no idea how recently they were cast. The two gave a full-bodied, joyous performance and their chemistry was hypnotic – it reminded me of my mates and I bussing jokes and dancing till our feet ached on the streets of west London.

“It reminded me of my mate’s and I bussing jokes and dancing till our feet ached on the streets of west London”

On top of that, Sapphire and Sharla played a number of other carnival-goers, including comical roadmen, two Carribean elders, and drunk, rude geezers. I totally believed each new character they delivered. The last character to make up the trio was Nisha, played by Annice Boparai, a well-meaning, queer Indian British social campaigner who reps a Trinidadian flag and doesn’t quite understand how her language towards her black friends is problematic.

I felt fully immersed in the carnival experience, from the KA and rum punch offered up before the show, to the set design (by Sandra Falase) consisting of bright fliers and sound systems. J’Ouvert loudly proclaims “this shit if for us” whilst delving into how difficult it is to truly feel like this shit is for us. They traipse through gentrified streets queueing for overpriced “jerk chow mein”, critique white people who fetishise them, and voice concerns about truly letting go and being shameless.

Photography by Helen Murray

J’Ouvert also touches upon the imperative and sadly unspoken issue of street harassment and slut-shaming at carnival – how our bodies are digested and celebrated in one hand but spat back out if we reject any person’s pursuits on the other. J’Ouvert makes us ask, how do we navigate a celebration of our bodies and culture whilst simultaneously being oversexualised by the world around us?  

The creative team for J’Ouvert is completely made up of black people and boy does it show. This isn’t a play watered down to be palatable for white audiences so they too can “get it” – it stands on its own two feet. The accents were on point (unlike a certain play about the Windrush at the National), elders in the audience shouted along to the jovial Jamaican proverbs, and the whole play paid homage to the mother of carnival Claudia Jones and Notting Hill Carnival’s radical roots. The music took me back to the cluttered streets, and bodies moving in waves. From Soca Boys ‘One Cent, Five Cent, 10 Cent, Dollar’, to slow wining and mean mugging to Sister Nancy’s ‘Bam Bam’, you can’t help but smile and secretly move your waist in your seat.

“We’re so lucky to be witnessing this exciting renaissance of black theatre in London”

This play is for girls like Jade, who have soul-destroying cusses ready for any man harassing them. It’s for young women like Nadine, hiding their rum flasks from prudish aunties in the crowd. It’s for every black Brit who is trying to survive in a world that would so easily see us and our loved ones die in a tower block in one of the richest boroughs in London.  

We’re so lucky to be witnessing this exciting renaissance of black theatre in London. Young black creatives like Tobi Kyeremateng (of Black Ticket Project) and new theatre company BadBreed coming together to tell our stories, full of body and life. I felt proud to be Jamaican. J’Ouvert reminded me that it was no exaggeration to believe Notting Hill Carnival is my birthright (even as a south Londoner). It reminded me that it’s our right to skin out, be joyous, be angry, to remember our queen of carnival Claudia Jones, and spend two whole glorious days as the majority.

J’Ouvert will be on at Theatre503 until 22 June. Book tickets here.

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