Joe Sellman-Leava’s new show Labels could not be more prescient as he brings it to the BT to fight prejudice and unite us

In 2009, I was in a workshop on racism and equality at Exeter University. Actress Emma Thompson led the workshop after her son, Tindy, had experienced racial abuse whilst studying there. “You have to use your anger,” she told us. “Or it festers.”

I wrote a story about my own mixed heritage; about the prejudice my Dad experienced growing up and as a young father, which promoted a change to our surname. I wrote about the names I’d been called and tied the performance together with various uses of sticky labels and plain paper. Emma was really supportive and encouraged me to continue writing it.

I did… for a while. But a series of other acting jobs meant Labels remained a short, unfinished piece for years. I’d always intended to complete it, but I needed a kick up the bum. In May 2014, the surge in support for UKIP – and for far right parties across Europe – was clear and present. Over the coming months, the subject of immigration seemed to dominate almost every political discussion and debate. Issues of race, ethnicity, culture, religion and extremism often got lumped in these conversations interchangeably. Like many people, I felt frustrated.

In early 2015, I added a series of impersonations to the beginning of the show – Enoch Powell, Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins all got a look in. I added more of the jokes and family stories that kept the original material personal and simple. If we could centre the story on family, we could connect audiences to more difficult issues of racism and displacement. If we used humour, we could discuss the more troubling themes. If we could balance light with dark, the show could be a catalyst for further discussion and thought.

Once we got to Edinburgh, things moved even faster. Word of mouth spread. Reviews came in thick and fast. We won a Scotsman Fringe First. And as people left the show, they shared their own stories of prejudice.

We’ve been touring Labels for almost a year now. It’s been a privilege to share it with people across the UK and we can’t wait to bring it to Oxford.

Labels will be playing at the Burton Taylor Studio on July 7-8.
See or call 01865 305305.