Notting Hill Carnival may not be coming to London for a few more months, but at Theatre503, the annual tradition is currently coming alive in a new way. Yasmin Joseph’s new play J’Ouvert puts its focus on the famed London carnival, telling the story of two Black British women as they navigate the experience and sexual politics of the carnival and fight to preserve its traditions. In this guest blog, Joseph shares more about J’Ouvert’s journey to the stage and the diverse team bringing it to life.
The journey of having Theatre503 premiere my debut play has been supported by them in so many ways. I first joined Theatre503 as their Resident Assistant Producer in 2015, and although I had newly joined the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab, I was hesitant at the time about putting myself out there as a writer. Instead, I focused on immersing myself with new work from behind the scenes. After working my way around a number of theatres, I gained a lot of experience that would greatly inform my process, and in 2017 I decided to apply for the Theatre503’s resident writing scheme 503Five.
Pitching J’Ouvert was part of the application process, and having Theatre503 interested in my play at the most embryonic stage in its life was both encouraging and exciting. To have a theatre dedicate 18 months to developing my idea into a full-length play, backed with support and advice from esteemed artists and opportunities for research and development, was really a transformative experience for me.
Pulling together the creative team for the production had to be intentional and deliberate. It was really important to me that everyone surrounding me had a personal and cultural stake in the story. My director Rebekah Murrell (Nine Night) was an obvious fit: she came from a Bajan background, was an avid Carnival-goer and someone who I previously had great creative chemistry with on my short play Do You Pray?. At the core of J’Ouvert are two young Black women who are immensely proud of their Caribbean heritage, and through Carnival navigate their connection to their culture and to each other. In that respect, our partnership whilst working on this has been vital to establishing the heart of the story. Colouring it with our own personal experiences, it sort of feels like something we’ve shared.My wider creative team is comprised nearly solely of Black women and non-binary creatives, and although not all of them are of Caribbean heritage, they have offered valid and nuanced creative insights into bringing Carnival to a small black box theatre.
Looking at Notting Hill Carnival throughout the ages, I connect deeply with its origins as a place that bravely and joyously fought back against erasure. There’s a line in my play that describes the experience of early Caribbean immigrants to the area as ‘pushing back against a city caving in on them, carving a space to be seen’.So many people find a home in West Indian culture; its influence is pervasive in so many genres of music, fashion, food and language. J’Ouvert tackles that fine line between appreciation and appropriation. It sinks its claws into Carnival’s distinct Black Caribbean roots and interrogates how the experience and surrounding area has been homogenized and gentrified gradually over time.
Most importantly to me, J’Ouvert looks at the treatment of Black women in Carnival spaces. It looks at the narrowing of areas where we are safe and free to express and explore our identities. In a tradition that is continued and upheld by Black women, J’Ouvert gives the Black women of Carnival, then and now, a multidimensional voice that asks ourselves and others what it means to feel free.
J’Ouvert is currently playing at Theatre503 through 22 June.