Good and bad labels

Joe Sellman- Leava nails the multiple characters he plays in Labels.
Joe Sellman- Leava nails the multiple characters he plays in Labels.PHOTO: ANNA BRUCE

Playwright Joe Sellman-Leava's thought-provoking one-man performance shows how labels can be used both as a crutch and a weapon



Worklight Theatre (United Kingdom)

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Wednesday

Reviewer. Journalist. Malay. Singapore. Daughter. Sister. Wife.

This self-labelling exercise was prompted by an intimate and thought-provoking one-man show performed by British-Indian playwright Joe Sellman- Leava about the comforts and limitations of labels.

The hour-long play sees labels with words such as "BRITISH", "INDIAN" and "FOREIGN" slapped onto his shirt (these are just the mentionables), while he tells his family history and tackles anti-immigrant rhetoric prevalent in his native Britain and elsewhere, including President-elect Donald Trump's America.

The main thrust of the play is that everyday occurrences of racism and easy labelling are not far removed from larger socio-political crises, such as countries tightening their borders.

Overall, it is an effective and urgent call for people to make a greater effort in understanding the humanity that lies beyond a label.

A versatile actor, Sellman-Leava plays multiple characters, from a young child who calls him "ARABIAN" on the street, to Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who sings a nursery rhyme with the N-word in it, to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to Trump.

The performances are great and he nails the accents, though he is surprisingly nervy when he speaks as himself.

Perhaps due to deference, he never fully mimics the strongest character in the play - his father - citing the reason that he cannot do justice to his powerful voice.

A Uganda-born Indian man who goes to Britain after being forced to flee his homeland during Amin's reign, Sellman-Leava's father ends up marrying a British woman and having three children.

To get a job more easily, he changes his surname from Patel to Sellman-Leava, which is a combination of his wife's maiden name and a subcaste in India from which the name Patel is derived. He switches accents depending on whom he is speaking to.

The richness of Sellman-Leava's family background is hard to convey when someone wants a simple answer to the question of where he is "really from". Even more painful is when that same person deduces, quite wrongly, that "he ain't English".

The show also draws the audience into the story by way of interaction. In one scene, he makes one female audience member read out messages sent to him by a revoltingly racist Tinder match. After learning about his bi-racial background, she mistakes his Internet speak for poor English language skills.

The actual stick-on labels Sellman-Leava puts on himself could easily have been gimmicky, but become integral to the story as the play progresses.

Strewn on the floor, they become bits of snow under his feet as he recounts his father's first steps in wintry Britain. The shredded pieces of paper later become wreckages of downed planes in war. In another scene, a white sticker affixed to Sellman-Leava's back brands him with a particularly offensive name that he cannot bring himself to say out loud, but knows that people have called him by.

There is a flipside to the story, though. Sellman-Leava also argues that labels can be comforting and convenient.

"Whoever we are, we write out our labels and stick them on," he says.

For example, his father's self- invented surname creates a new label for his family to attach new meaning and new histories to.

When the play comes to a close, Sellman-Leava holds up the final label, "THE END", wordlessly.

It is abrupt, seeming to suggest that the story of labels has not quite ended and that people will never stop using them, both as crutch and weapon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2017, with the headline 'Good and bad labels'. Print Edition | Subscribe