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J’Ouvert: Yasmin Joseph Brings Carnival To Life on Stage

“What people you know can party through all of the earth’s elements?”

J’Ouvert is Yasmin Joseph’s debut play, as well as Rebekkah Murrell directorial debut. The play explores the history and politics behind the tradition of Notting Hill Carnival, as well as the lived experience of the Black British woman. J’Ouvert is set in Notting Hill Carnival, but goes beyond this context in its exploration of how spaces in society are manipulated and manned.

The potential of J’Ouvert is immense. If Saphire Joy, Sharla Smith and Annice Boparai can bring carnival to life on the intimate Theatre503 stage, I can only image the potential of what they could achieve on an even bigger stage. The vibrance of the costumes, the music, the writing and above all the rich culture of British Caribbeans which frame all of the above, shape J’Ouvert into a great piece of contemporary theatre. Theatre is a notoriously white, and traditional industry. Theatre productions such as J’Ouvert challenge the conventions of theatre as well as rewrite what representation on stage looks like.

I spoke to Yasmin Joseph about J’Ouvert, and the politics of staging Notting Hill Carnival.

How significant was it for you to stage Notting Hill Carnival on a London stage?

Notting Hill Carnival is inherently theatrical to me. It’s a place that holds so much history, carries so many stories, it juxtaposes joy and pain and pours into narrow streets before bursting into colour! Throughout this process I was totally aware of the creative challenge in trying to translate this energy on stage, but more than anything, it excites me. I think for young Black British artists there’s great value in documenting our own experiences. I chose to tackle what feels like a very big story through the lens of two very ordinary young Black women because I want to assert the notion that their voices and voices like theirs are important.

What is the cultural significance of Notting Hill Carnival for second/third generation Caribbean immigrants/those with Caribbean ancestry?

Despite being born and bred in Camden and feeling very British, my Caribbean heritage (Dominican, Jamaican, Vincentian) is what shapes me most. It informs my stories and how I tell them, my sense of humour, my politics, my perception of home. Notting Hill Carnival for me is a way of laying claim, standing firm and taking pride in a country that seeks to ostracise and erase the contributions of Black Caribbean People.

How does J’Ouvert explore the sexual politics of carnival? Particularly attitudes towards women’s bodies?

J’Ouvert looks at the fact that Carnival is a vital tradition that is continued and upheld by Black women. It examines and interrogates how they are treated in that space, particularly when they’re dancing, showing skin and generally seeking to feel uninhibited and free. It touches on the unwritten rules of respect and consent in Carnival that are vital in preserving its integrity.

I noticed that the production team is all female, how does the production process feel with an all female/non-binary team?

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The composition of our team was very intentional, we wanted to ensure that everyone – from the director straight through to the stage management and set design – had a personal and cultural investment in the story. This is also why our team is nearly solely comprised of Black people. This allowed for nuanced and open conversations that I believe will elevate what you see on stage.

How would you encourage young female or non-binary theatre writers to get involved into theatre?

I would encourage them to not be afraid to make demands and to create opportunities where they don’t feel they exist. It’s a tricky thing waiting to be seen, it should just happen because you’re human, but often it doesn’t. So sometimes you need to ask and that can be daunting. Remember you’re always more than within your rights to ask your local theatre for space, support, or to engage in honest conversation about removing whatever barriers are currently stopping you from creating your work – most institutions are funded on the basis of serving the communities they’re surrounded by! And if they say no, don’t let that stop you from trying elsewhere.

I would also say to lean on your contemporaries. I definitely don’t know it all, but I’ve learned a lot from the process of putting on my first play. If a 20-minute sit down, or a quick email with a writer from my background would help and I had the time I would be more than happy to lend it! (Famous last words, I’m already crap enough at responding.)

J’Ouvert is vibrant, funny and current. It’s a story that not only seeks to capture the heart of Notting Hill Carnival, but to keep it’s finger on the pulse of the complexities of Black womanhood.