Joe Sellman-Leava in his one-man show,  Labels

Joe Sellman-Leava in his one-man show, Labels

Image by Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Daniel Nelson

Every Briton who looks even faintly “foreign” has had to answer the question “Where are you from?” and the inevitable follow-up, having replied London or Leeds or Llandudno, “But where are you really from?”

Sub-text: You may formally be British but we know that, really, you’re not.

It says much of Joe Sellman-Leava’s skill and charm that he makes even this tired cliché of the brown or black comedian’s circuit seem relatively fresh. 

His hour-long monologue was born out of a racism and equality workshop led by actor Emma Thompson in 2009 (“What a terrific piece. I love it. Simple, powerful, important and funny”) and updated for the last general election (and, as it turns out, for the current refugee crisis). It’s witty, sharp, sincere, well-paced and engaging. And occasionally barbed: “I want to know why letting someone drown is better than letting them in.”

The son of a Uganda Asian – one of scores of terms that give rise to the show’s title, Labels – and a white Englishwoman, Sellman-Leava was born in Gloucestershire, yet cannot escape the epithet Paki.

He tell his parents’ story and his own, all the while producing labels and tossing them around the stage, a roll call of dishonour: Enoch Powell, Nick Griffin, Idi Amin, Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins, Tony Abbott, Ed Miliband, Donald Trump, David Cameron, Nigel Farage, David Starkey. Why do they, we, do it?

It would take more than an hour to explain our prejudice and ignorance, but Sellman-Leava does a superb job, gently but with flashes of justified anger, in entertaining us while making us think. 

Oh, and that unusual name? Where’s it from? You’ll have to see the show to find out.

+ Q&A with Joe Sellman-Leava

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