Honors in Oxford: Tutorial #2
“Where are you REALLY from,” Sellman-Leava’s voice booms as he imitates another peer; his voice echoes off the walls of the small theatre.
Joe Sellman-Leava is the writer and star of a solo show called “Labels”, which chronicles his raw and authentic story as a mixed-heritage boy growing up on the rural side of England and the relationships that were either formed or destroyed between him and his peers. Drawing on his past experiences, he examines the way words are used today, from arbitrary labels to offensive languages, and effectively communicates the need to acknowledge the prevalence of racism around the world. By arranging his family narrative amid quotes taken from the words of various public figures, allows the show to deal with broader themes.
Peppered throughout the show, he impersonates many political and public figures including Donald Trump (American conservative nominee), Idi Amin (Ugandan dictator), David Cameron (former UK prime minister), Jeremy Clarkson (British talk show host on Top Gear), and more to describe how racism has continued from history’s worst moments to modern mainstream media. As he eloquently speaks in the original accents spoken by the aforementioned public figures, he holds up placards to indicate the speaker and the year, that it was said in, that serve to highlight the ubiquity of these racially charged statements across time and space. These statements encompass issues from immigration to culture and ethnicity. By using their accents, Sellman-Leava is able to paint a portrait that shows their ludicrous acts with the best possible portrayal. His mastery of accents and his idiosyncratic speech patterns are perfect, and the humor is never derived from mere caricature, with an exception of one politician. Furthermore, he also brings issues like immigration into perspective by dissipating cards written with varies different six digit numbers on each card. As he flings the cards into the air, he imparts that the numbers of Syrian refugees had drastically increased, yet no one seemed to have cared much. Some politicians even compared them to “swarms” of bugs and felt the need to “build a wall”, labeling them as “cockroaches” and “bad immigrants”. His point is clear: the numbers are people—humans—each one carrying a value. It is unjust to gamble their lives like cards on a playing field. The symbolism he incorporates is impeccable.
Frankly, it is not just those racist bigots that apply labels to everyone, everyone is guilty of becoming slaves to the power of labels. Everyone uses them in their daily lives. Fortunately, labels do not always have a pejorative meaning. Labels are used to describe friends and enemies for evolutionary survival purposes. Sellman-Leava uses this moment to interact with the audience on the front row by using sticker labels. Thus, he is able to effectively demonstrate the arbitrary nature of naming, categorizing and classifying others by using labels such as “boy” and “friend” on a couple people.
Everyone is a hypocrite. Sellman-Leava acknowledges this, and with a sheet of rice paper written “HYPOCRITE” he crumbles it up, chews and swallows it. The message he displays shows that the taste of a hypocrite is disgusting yet it is inside of everyone. It is difficult to swallow. Everyone, however, has the ability to suppress it, to hold it in those hypocritical thoughts.
Throughout the show, he continues to make a constant effort to interact with the audience. At one poignant point in his life, he desperately seeks to find love and thus tries a dating app called Tinder, where usually people want to find love, or better yet “approval”. He asks for a volunteer from the audience to be his “Tinder girl”. With cue cards, they each read off the conversation he had with “the girl”. As the conversation began with Sellman-Leava greets her with “hey, how are you” it quickly escalates when she replies with “where are you from”. When he replies with a short and honest answer that he was from Devon, England, she was not satisfied and asks, “No, where are you REALLY from?” When he finally admits he is partially English and Indian, she responds “so you’re Indian.” At first, he brushed it off his shoulder and acted as if it was a joke, but with further correspondences, it was evident that she despised Indians and eventually he leaves the chat. The label “Indian” held a lot of weight–a prime example of one of those labels we use in our daily lives that can be overlooked. With such emotion and his incredible acting skills, he compels the audience to tears.
This is not the first, nor his last, encounter with racism. All through his life, he has encountered kids his age, or younger, ask why his skin was just “a shade darker” or why his dad “walked a little funny”. Even attending a university, the haunting juvenile school boy racism followed him. Oddly enough, racism never ceased to end—nor does it seem like it will any time soon. The label he was placed never left his side. A name equivalent to the “n-word” in America to describe the African Americans was spoken about Sellman-Leava behind his back. The way he dealt with these situations was riveting. He places the label on his back, and carries on the story as if it did not bother him.
As aforementioned, his mixed descent stems from his father who is Indian and his mother who is English. Intermittently, he would put on his father’s persona and talk to the audience as if his dad was talking to him. He explains the struggles his dad had to overcome just to arrive in the UK including the voyage from Uganda as an Indian refugee in the 1970s and even dreamed of becoming a pilot. As an Indian refugee coming to the UK, his father struggled to maintain a feasible living. His father had chosen to put his family as his first and foremost priority, thus he left his dream of become a pilot. He was dedicated in trying to find other jobs to support his family. However, finding a job was not easy, especially with an Indian last name like Patel. His father was constantly jeered by men who mocked him with fake, thick Indian accents. But the way Sellman-Leava portrays him was clear that he admired him. Every time he would use his father’s personage, he would wear a blazer, indicating success and confidence, in which only his father carried.
Sellman-Leava ended on a note of hope. Through the obstacles of racism his parents had to overcome, they realized one of the only solutions was to change their surname from Patel to Sellman-Leava so they would not be subjected to others predisposed discrimination. In other words, realizing that another label is needed to reverse the original label can be life-changing.
“Labels” offers a new way of evaluating the use and effect of our words and challenges the propensity of language that either transmits ideas or is affected by it. Sellman-Leava conveys some personal aspects of his life that are identifiable, and is therefore treated as universal and understandable concepts. His show is magnificently written and performed. It is apparent with his audience’s response, press reviews and the myriads of awards he has won. He plans on spreading from the UK to the US (but so far, he only plans on going to the eastern coastal states). Needless to say, he truly is an inspiration. (I even had the honor to take a picture with him) *o*