On Wednesday 4th May, along with some of my colleagues and mentors in the sociology department, I went to the Theatre Royal Plymouth to watch Labels. Labels is a multi-award winning show exploring the real life course of protagonist Joe Sellman-Leava, from his childhood in 1990s Devon, to his studies at Exeter University, to the present day.
Right from the outset, the authenticity of every story told, because it was plucked straight from Joe’s actual experiences, evoked powerful feelings of connection. He was sharing some intimate details of his life that were often shocking, although easily credible.
The focus of the show, as you would probably guess, is labels and stigma- something Joe, as someone who is mixed-heritage, has experienced a lot growing up. Utilising sticky labels as props to great effect, Joe builds parallel narratives from his own life course and the rising anti-immigration rhetoric, to show how words have real effects.
One example of how Joe expertly weaves together his life story with the discriminatory nationalistic discourse to highlight the damage it does, which is returned to multiple times throughout the short but brilliant solo performance, is a question that many of us take for granted as nothing suspect. “Where are you from?” When most of us hear this, we usually have a simple and immediate answer, but Joe, calling attention to the experience of many non-Whites living in supposedly multi-cultural and tolerant 21st century Britain, explains the hidden purpose of this question when it is asked by some.
“Where are you from from?” some would change their question to after Joe told them he was from Devon but was born elsewhere in Britain, as is true for many of us, especially at university. The true intention of some who ask this is illustrated more thoroughly by other stories Joe shares. An obvious example of this being when people have actually said something to the effect of “you can’t be British because you’re brown- you must be Indian so that’s where you’re from from.”
Stories like this probably aren’t shocking as they should be and in the Q&A session following the performance, Joe along with his colleagues at Worklight Theatre, agreed that there is a risk that the inherent moral of their show would not create the impact it needs to because it “preaches to the choir”. However, I think the show still has an important effect in that it encourages racialized minorities to share their experiences, to believe that they are actually deserving of recognition and respect.
I also believe the show is exemplary of one of contemporary identity politics most difficult problematics. Minorities want to be recognised as such, but treated equally and ironically, currently, this means treating them differently- tolerance should not mean tolerating by ignoring. For the marginalised and oppressed, equal treatment should not simply be a matter of equal recognition under the law. True equality requires that the more privileged sections of society raise them up, or allow them to rise themselves, to positions of equality in every aspect.
If you already consider yourself a champion of egalitarianism I would still recommend seeing this show. The stories told will still tug at your heartstrings but the humour throughout, including expertly timed sound effects, audience participation and focus of blame on those who produce racialising discourses will leave you more confident in your beliefs that all people are equal, without that uncomfortable twinge of white guilt that I’ve come to understand puts many off direct involvement with new social movements.
Labels is quite short, lasting only about an hour. Nevertheless, it is packed with content and expertly paced such that I don’t wish to share too much about it. I highly recommend that if Labels is showing where you are, you try and see it.