Theatre Review: J’ouvert & the Notting Hill Carnival

Cleo's pic
Theatre Review: J’ouvert & the Notting Hill Carnival
Cleo reflects on a play that resonates with social issues in both the past and the present, and shows that, in the final analysis, history is always in the process of being made.

J'ouvert is a traditional festival known as "break day" or the unofficial start of Carnival, which takes place the Monday before Ash Wednesday. The festival, believed to have its origins in Trinidad and Tobago, traditionally begins at 2 AM and continues until mid-morning on Monday.

As we emerge from lockdown, I felt the need to be in a celebratory mood and hear and feel the vibes of music other than from my Spotify account. With the Notting Hill Carnival cancelled for a second year running, I started to trawl the internet to see what else - if anything - would or could come close to replacing it. To my delight, I came across J’ouvert playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre written by Yasmin Joseph (pictured).

As I took my seat in a socially distanced theatre with music playing in the background, I looked around at the mask covered audience and started to wonder why on earth would I venture out into this strange new world that we now live in. 

Then the lights dim; it’s showtime. It’s set to the backdrop of Notting Hill Carnival 2017, just weeks after the Grenfell Fire. The story centres around three girls. Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks), who wants to win a Soca dance competition and its top prize of a magazine shoot and all-expenses paid trip to St Lucia, is from a strong Christian family who disapprove of her career choice. Jade (Sapphire Joy) is vocal about the gentrification of Notting Hill and is preparing a speech for the carnival with the help of her friend Nisha (Annice Boparai), a gay rich Asian who lives in Holland Park. The music is by Zuyanne Russell, who drops classic socca tunes like ‘Nanny Wine’ and ‘Cent Five Cent Ten Cent Dollar.’ The stage is a huge revolving subwoofer speaker, where the girls dance to the music blasting out.

The girls re-enact the shenanigans of the night and recall memories of ancestors past, notably Claudia Jones, the founder of carnival, who appears to Nadine when she is in confrontation with others. Claudia always brings her back to her roots and tells her to keep the spirit alive. They describe what it’s like to be in the crush of the crowds trying to jump up, and they show the dance movements that prevent men from trying to take advantage of their skimpy clothing in a close confined space.

The girls touch on all aspects of being a black person growing up in England, and of the early days of the carnival when revellers were beaten with police truncheons and London signs read No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. Jade recollects How she and her brother was split up from their mother and taken by a white lady who wondered whether she should take them into her home. The cultural divide is stark when they describe how they live on the same street, yet a million miles apart. 

The description of passers-by and the food served on the streets at the helped me relive my own carnival experiences of yesteryears. Nadine and Jade took me back when they played two old men selling flags and whistles and busting jokes - the typical village elders who look out for the youngsters. Nish appears in front of them drunk; they attempt to offer her help, but she turns them down before they even finish their sentence. I laughed when they said ‘talking to big people like dem a size’, which reminded me of something my own mother and grandfather would say. A conversation ensues between the two generations about belonging and home and there is a moving tribute to Kelso Cochrane, stabbed to death by white men in 1959 - a black man who thought he was living the dream life. They talk of dark times, of the struggles black people endured, and how it took a woman like Claudia Jones, to say enough is enough. And that is how the carnival was born.

The hip gyrations hold no bounds until Nadine freezes during her Soca competition, calling out to her ancestors to help her get her groove back. But the one time she needs Claudia Jones the most, Claudia fails to appear.

The girls argue about their differences when referring to Grenfell; how they live is so different to Nish, who makes it very clear that her life is not easy, and she doesn’t go around with her eyes closed, and knows why they put black and brown people above the 4th floor. The girls huddle together; the silence is deafening. A chill runs down my spine as we remember those who died in Grenfell Tower.

There is an altercation when the boys again make advances at Nadine, and this time Jade lashes out. Nish reminds her that she is better than that. They are brought down by other revellers and arrested. Jade stands up and takes the mic. ‘Enough is enough!’ she shouts. ‘Women are to be free to wear what they like and speak out and say what they like. Stop building moats but build bridges…bring the community together.’ Her words resonated so much, especially in the light of the Sarah Everard case. It’s what I’ve seen and heard time and time again. Considering this play premiered in 2019 little has changed in the way women are seen and treated, as well as how the rich and poor gap is widening further.

J’ouvert was an exhilarating welcome back to the theatre. It was a shame that I went towards the end of the run as I would love to have seen it again. I was fortunate enough to meet Yasmin Joseph on the night - such a delightful and humble person to talk to. I’m looking forward to seeing what she writes next.