J’Ouvert opens with an abstract monologue about the build-up to Notting Hill Carnival, which Nadine (Sharla Smith) attends every year, always competing in the dance competition. She is from south London, but for this long weekend her home becomes the west, from the Great Western Road to Bayswater.
The opening monologue is sometimes directed at the audience, or at a direct object who is never specified, and then directed at Nadine herself, then sometimes focuses on the other participants in the carnival. It becomes jarring and hard to follow because the object is not solid.
This lack of a single object becomes a problem throughout the play. Nadine is joined by her friends, Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai). They are very different characters, Nisha being the outsider who is consumed by her focus on the politics of freedom, wanting to ‘connect’ with the locals and inspire change. Jade has recently joined Nisha’s political group and plans on giving a talk at the carnival, while Nadine is just focused on the dance. In their conversations the dialogue is very well constructed, the discussions engaging, very funny, and highly revealing about the racial politics of British life.
It seems strange, though, when Nadine breaks off into poetry, or into a continuation of her opening monologue, that the other two take on her language. Nadine is withdrawn into a carnivalesque dream, in which she sees the Mother of Carnival (who is twice called Claudia Jones, the Communist and civil rights activist who set up Notting Hill Carnival, and other times is not called anything), so her forays into poetry are fitting for her disappearances from the scene. Everything freezes as Nadine is withdrawn, and her language stuns the audience into this other realm where the racist histories are retraced. But when Jade and Nisha also speak in poetry, that clever change in Nadine’s language is weakened.
Everything in the play is performed between these two sides: the real that is here and now, and the other that is an abstract possibility. Nadine clearly represents the abstract, while Jade is the real. When Jade says that they could be ‘dancing on bodies’, Nadine quickly cuts in: ‘or with spirits.’ These are the options played with for 100 minutes in J’Ouvert, and each one slices into the other in a very interesting discussion on whether it is grand political ideas that change things, or if it is physical and communal action that gets things done. The answer might be offered when Nadine, dreaming again, says, ‘All I want is…’ at which point Jade enters the stage again. It is not about ideas, but about action.
Jade’s fight scene – which I won’t reveal the details of – concludes the call to action. The scene slows and for once it is not for Nadine’s abstract dreams. This time Claudia Jones is not here, no DJs call everyone to the dance floor. This is just action.
J’Ouvert is a very convincing play about race relations in the UK, and it is genuinely hilarious. Not “theatre funny”, where only the inexplicably inducted giggle at obscure lines, but properly, belly-breakingly, laugh-out-loud hilarious. It is incredibly hard to get proper laughs in theatre while conveying a powerful message. Yasmin Joseph’s impressive debut has managed this really well.
The parts that work best are when the actors change characters, becoming the people they are speaking to or the people they mention in passing. A long scene in which they become two old Jamaican men selling flags and whistles at the carnival is especially wonderful, showing the writer’s ability to create intimacy and hilarity with a wide range of people and places. The minute silence for the victims of Grenfell Tower is fantastically well done, placed in the middle of two completely different violent scenes that create a very emotional arch.
Overall this is a great play that provides a very powerful message alongside powerful laughter. Some of the dynamics could be improved – like where the actors stand, the reason for their movements, the objects on stage, the way they speak and who they are talking to – but there is a lot to be enjoyed and learned from this play. J’Ouvert is sure not to disappoint. As Nadine says, ‘These streets are ours – not to take, but to keep!’ And this play, though it may not take every opportunity to be truly astounding, and some teething problems may remain, will certainly keep the audience laughing and thinking critically about Britain today.
Author: Yasmin Joseph
Director: Rebekah Murrell
Producer: Tobi Kyeremateng
Booking link: https://theatre503.com/whats-on/jouvert/#tickets
Booking until: 22 June 2019