Written by Yasmin Joseph and directed by Rebekah Murrell
Harold Pinter Theatre, 16 Jun – 3 July 2021
Review by Nicole-Rachelle Moore
With carnival as the vehicle, J’Ouvert and its cast of four take us on a journey through class, culture, family, history, race and sexism, in an effective, unobtrusive set designed by Sandra Falase (in collaboration with Chloe Lamford).
Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nads (Gabrielle Brooks) are best friends and masqueraders out on the west London streets to enjoy the freedom that Notting Hill’s Carnival Sunday (J’Ouvert) allegedly brings. Each young woman has her own ambitions and struggles; while Nads appears the more dominant, Jade proves herself to be tough and resolute.
Nisha (Annice Boparai) is a middle-class Holland Park resident who with Jade, is part of ‘West London Rising’, a community activist group. Her simpering character humorously exemplifies the stereotype of ‘do-gooder’ ‘self-righteous’ Gen-Z activism (‘We’re here to party but here to rally too.’). She does, though,‘know what it is to have your history smudged out’, and in the play’s latter half, gives an honest and powerful account of her understanding of the tensions between ‘black and brown’ people notwithstanding their shared experience of racism.
Nads, a south Londoner, dreams of being Island Vogue’s ‘Face of the Fete’ (‘When last was a dark-skinned girl on the cover?’) even as she cowers and cringes in the face of her family’s puritanical Christian values. Jade’s uncertainty surfaces as she doubts not only her ability to speak out on behalf of the local community, but also her best friend’s appreciation of her need to be and do something different and new.
Zuyane Russell is the DJ who keeps the decks spinning with pulsating Soca rhythms. She’s an essential link for the other characters and the audience. There are times, though, when the music prematurely steers everyone away from moments of reflection, sadness or vulnerability.
Some of the play’s most compelling scenes involve the spirit of Claudia Jones (co-founder of the Notting Hill Carnival), who appears to Nads at crucial times, offering ancestral wisdom (‘It’s time to stop running. Step into your light. Keep the spirit [of Carnival] alive! We were cut short by sickness, old age, murder. This is not your story. Finish what we started. Fix your crown and make the earth shake!’).
Back on the physical plane, Brooks and Joy also enact the roles of two old Notting Hill men. Charles and Hubert are Windrush generation pioneers and carnival vendors who casually and comically educate Nisha about the reality of the Notting Hill riots of 1958 (‘No book can tell you what we saw.’). In so doing, they critique young activists like Nisha who believe their experiences of oppression are new and that they’re the originators of resistance.
In an age where so many have been deprived of tactility, J’Ouvert reminds us that ‘Carnival is flesh. Carnival is body. Carnival is touch.’ Even though the two friends resist unwelcome physical advances from men, they both revel in the sensual physicality of carnival through their dancing (also known as “wining”).
While Joseph’s script tackles profound subjects, including the Grenfell tragedy of 2017 (highlighted by a minute of silence) and structural inequality, there are also hilarious moments. The ability of Jade, Nads and Nisha to embody the humour and pathos of the circumstances is a key strength of this educative and emotionally immersive piece of theatre.