J’Ouvert first came to our attention when it played at Theatre 503, Battersea, in June 2019 – and it makes a return this year for a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre. From Wednesday 16 June to Saturday 3 July 2021 you can immerse yourself in Yasmin Joseph’s wonderful play J’Ouvert, which offers many moments of recognition to anyone who’s ever played mas at Notting Hill, felt the frustration of a queue for overpriced, gentrified food, or encountered a swagger of youths trying to play the big man.
We got in touch with Rebekah Murrell, the director, and put forward the following questions.
Who are you?
I’m an actor and director from London. I’ve worked with writer Yasmin Joseph on various projects over the last four years, all joyful and thought-provoking pieces of work centring Black British and Caribbean women’s perspectives – Do You Pray, about a grandmother and her granddaughter attempting to connect; First Winter, about the lives and contributions of Windrush-era citizens to the NHS; and J’Ouvert, about our beloved Notting Hill Carnival, and all the joys and trials that come with taking up space there as a young woman.
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Where are you from (roots)?
My mum’s side of the family is from Barbados. My dad’s family are Jewish via Manchester. Yasmin’s family are from Dominica and Jamaica.
Well, first and foremost, J’Ouvert is born from a deep, lifelong love of Carnival and what it represents for people with Caribbean heritage in particular. Then the story developed when, a few years ago, Yasmin was in New York doing an internship. Early on in her time there she was delighted to hear soca coming through her window in Brooklyn – it was the Labor Day Parade (New York’s Carnival equivalent). She spent an amazing day there, and felt at home away from home. But her cousins were shocked to hear she had gone alone, and she heard later that a woman named Tiarah Poyau had been shot there, point blank, by a man whose sexual advances she had refused. Another woman, Asami Nagakiya, was found murdered at Trinidad Carnival after she had played mas – and the mayor of Port of Spain stated that it happened because of what she was wearing. Yasmin was inspired to write into that knot – what it means for women to celebrate ourselves and our culture, to uphold the traditions and liberation of Carnival spaces, when our bodies are frequently put under threat for doing so.
Yasmin sent me a first draft in summer 2018 and I completely fell in love. I remember sitting on a train to Edinburgh and laughing my head off just from reading it. It was the play I had always dreamed of directing – a hilarious, heartfelt, epic story about three young London women tackling sisterhood, sexuality, spirituality, heritage and more. We workshopped it with the support of Theatre503 and some brilliant actors and creatives, and eventually put on a full production in the summer of 2019. And now – we’re back.
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What message/memory do you hope to impart to anyone who has seen the play?
I hope people are left with a huge sense of pride for Carnival spaces the world over and with a sense of determination to uphold them and fill them with the joy they were founded for, and leave any bad energy behind. I hope people take away a reminder of how precious a thing Carnival is, and how precious are the young women at the heart of it. I hope people remember where Carnival came from and are inspired to find out more about its roots. I hope people are dazzled by the incredible performances they have witnessed from our spectacular cast, and by the intricate, powerful design work. And, maybe most of all, I hope people have a great night out, hearing their favourite tunes tun up LOUD, and enjoying being together in the dark with strangers for the first time in over a year.
If you’ve never been to the theatre and are thinking of going, then start with J’Ouvert. It shows at The Harold Pinter Theatre, 4 Panton St, London SW1Y 4SW (buses 14, 19, 24, 29, 38, 176; Tube Charing Cross, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus) from Wednesday 16 June to Saturday 3 July 2021. Tickets are £5-£10. For more information and to book your tickets visit the Harold Pinter Theatre website.