Award-winning Edinburgh show about ethnicity comes to Stratford

PUBLISHED: 17:00 30 March 2016

Joseph Sellman-Leava will perform Labels at Theatre Royal Stratford East's new theatre space

Joseph Sellman-Leava will perform Labels at Theatre Royal Stratford East's new theatre space

benjamin j borley

Take a walk through any Newham street and you’ll find people who identify themselves as black, Asian, mixed race, white – such is the norm when you live in one of London’s most ethnically diverse areas.

The play draws on wider societal issues relating to racism and anti-immigration rhetoricThe play draws on wider societal issues relating to racism and anti-immigration rhetoric

Not so, writer and actor Joseph Sellman-Leava tells me, if you were a mixed-race boy growing up in rural south west England during the 1990s.

“I am the son of a white British mother and a British Asian father. When I was four my dad was told that our surname might prevent him from finding work, so he changed it,” he explains.

The Gloucestershire-born boy has amassed his experiences to write and star in new solo show, Labels, which also draws on how we use words in addition to wider societal issues such as the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric.

“I talk about my own mixed heritage and and my own experiences of racism and also as my dad, as if he was telling me stories about his own experiences of coming to the UK and growing up as a British man from an Indian family,” he says.

Unlikely as it sounds, the show derived from Joseph’s attendance at a racism and equality workshop, led by none other than Oscar-winning actor – and activist – Emma Thompson in 2009, who he happened to meet again in 2015 by chance.

“She took the script and emailed some weeks later with some encouraging words and a suggestion. It felt amazing because I have so much respect for what she’s done as a writer, actor and activist,” says Joseph.

The former drama student had to recall personal episodes of prejudice, which for him meant “unpleasant words or exchanges”.

“For my dad, it was worse,” he adds, “partly because of the time in which he grew up.

“For others around the world though, racial prejudice remains a stark reality and the consequences are worse still.”

Joseph has since developed the play with Labels’ director Katharina Reinthaller, to reflect societal changes that he said “could no longer be ignored”.

“Namely this was a general election where immigration was being talked about in a way it hadn’t been in a long time and a refugee crisis that has sadly only got wrose as the show has toured into and throughout 2016.”

Despite the serious underlying tone, Joseph says he wants people “to laugh, be drawn in by the story and to leave thinking, and talking, about what it meant to them”.

I can’t finish without asking what it means to be the first performer at the new 80-seat theatre in Gerry’s, which opens with the show?

“It’s a place with a rich history, a great programme of work and a loyal audience base,” he says.

“I and the rest of Worklight Theatre feel very honoured to be part of the launch of the new space!”

Tickets cost from £10. Labels runs 5-30 April at Theatre Royal Stratford East, visit click here or call 020 8534 0310 to book.

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