Upon leaving the Harold Pinter Theatre, I turn my head left as I walk up the stairs. Adorning the walls are posters of plays and actors that have filled the stage over the ages; as might be expected, the vast majority of the faces that stare out at me are white. Standing at the end of a long line of history, J’OUVERT is a radical, important, and revolutionary addition to the theatrical scene, a play which fluidly walks the line between entertainment and the dissemination of ideas surrounding race and gender in the UK.
‘J’Ouvert’ is a Caribbean term which refers to the official start of carnival, and the play mainly follows Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (Sapphire Joy), two young black women, as they attend the Notting Hill Carnival. The acting of Brooks and Joy is simply astounding. They embody fire, life, vitality, power; they switch between the main characters and others they encounter at the festival with ease, changing accents and body language at the flick of a switch. Nadine and Jade are both sketched out beautifully by Yasmin Joseph’s script – full, realistic, and relatable characters, something beyond refreshing to see. The placement of two women of colour front and centre and the prioritisation and amplification of their voices throughout J’OUVERT is where I believe it draws so much of its radical power. The words they speak are poetic, powerful, and transformative, and Joseph’s writing is a breath of fresh air.
Nadine and Jade both fight for their own space but in different ways. Nadine is inspired by the history of Carnival, and is filled with the spirit of Claudia Jones, the founder of Notting Hill Carnival. To her, the carnival is a statement in itself, and the dancing and the outfits are beautiful symbols of Caribbean culture and ancestry: “dances live in your skin”, “coat these roads with your truth”, and “keep the spirit alive” are all statements which make clear that dancing is something more, something that connects Nadine to her ancestors and the roots of the festival itself. Dancing is a huge theme which runs throughout the play, with both Nadine and Jade spending more time moving to a beat than not; and it is dancing and joy that Claudia Jones hoped would unify a community torn apart by racism and xenophobia.
Jade, on the other hand, is committed to a more organisational activism. Throughout the play, we see her gearing up to give a speech to people at the carnival on behalf of an activist group fighting against black and brown oppression in the borough. Jade wants, needs, to do something more, to use her voice and actively fight for her community. What I really love about J’OUVERT is that both Nadine and Jade’s methods of fighting for their own space are both portrayed as valid and powerful in their own ways. There is no one way to stand up for who you are and where you come from.
“Notting Hill was an angry place”. The carnival was created to transform anger into joy. J’OUVERT does this on so many levels it is staggering. Countless times throughout the play, feelings of anger between the characters are resolved and mediated by dancing, by coming together to Caribbean music and forgetting everything to embrace joy. By the end, the entire audience is on their feet, dancing and clapping; joy radiates outwards from the stage, infectious, and the physical and emotional experience of watching J’OUVERT is a testament to the continued importance and relevance of the Notting Hill Carnival as a space for the celebration of Caribbean culture.
J’OUVERT is playing the Harold Pinter Theatre until 3 July 2021. For more information and tickets, see Harold Pinter Theatre online.