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Seven years have passed since Joe Sellman-Leava met actress and activist Emma Thompson. She was leading a racism and equality workshop at Exeter University in 2009. What Joe learned at this workshop led him to develop the one-man show Labels, which Carolina Performing Arts brought to UNC's Historic Playmakers Theatre earlier this week. Under the auspices of Worklight Theatre Co. of England, which was begun by Sellman-Leava in 2011, Labels has toured internationally and received critical acclaim from such organizations as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. When Labels opened on the UNC campus this week, it was Joe and Worklight's American debut.
Labels is highly autobiographical. Joe was born in southwestern England to an English mother and Pakistani father. His heritage has followed him around the world, giving new meaning to the phrase, "Where you from?" Joe learned that this simple phrase could have very different meanings, depending on who was asking the question.
"Sometimes it's just a question, and sometimes it goes much deeper," Joe tells us in Labels. It seems that many people who ask Joe this question are actually inquiring into his heritage, so that the answer "southwestern England" doesn't satisfy them. They are actually trying to find out how to label him. Such labels have ranged from "half and half" to "NOT English," and many points in between. Joe found the need many people have to know just how different someone is from them is often so great that they see very little else but "other."
For most intents and purposes, Joe is a WASP, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but often his fellow Englishmen don't see him this way. Joe tells us of a series of chats he had on a "looking for romance" site, when the young lady he was corresponding with suddenly asked him that question. "You don't look English," she stated. His answer, apparently, confirmed her worst fears. "You're Indian." Once that was established, she lost interest, prompting Joe to ask, "What do you want?" "Someone NOT Indian," was her reply.
Joe looks at names, labels, and tries to examine the need we have for them. Labels often serve as barriers, the walls we put up to protect ourselves. "Where you from?" can have very different meanings, depending on whether the speaker is asking out of curiosity, or fear. We often use labels to quantify our own prejudices. Humor, Joe has found, can often be used to short-circuit these prejudices. It is sprinkled liberally throughout Labels. Joe's feels that, if you can make someone laugh, it can sometimes drive the conversation past "where you from" and connect with the person more directly, leaving the necessity for heritage behind. Joe is practiced in the art, connecting with the audience personally and involving several members of the audience in the show, labeling them as we go. Labels, he tells us, are often the basis for the division between us and them, "them" being that from which we wish to distance or protect ourselves. It is interesting that this show arrives on our shores just after the election; our president-elect Donald Trump is quoted more than once. Joe does a fairly good imitation. He also quotes a number of English political pundits, most of whom were instrumental in bringing England to its Brexit decision. Joe's insights bear a direct correlation to nationalism and the rise of the "other."
Labels has been workshopped by Worklight Theatre since 2014. Joe has made it easily portable, having built the entirety of the show out of a single suitcase. Included are a stool, a jacket, an apple — which Joe eats — and a whole suitcase full of labels. Joe called on fellow Worklight artist Katherina Reinthaller to direct Labels; it has been designed by Charlotte Anderson, with lights and sound by Phil Hewitt.
Joe is completely at ease in his Labels identity, connecting with us on many levels, reaching beyond his labels, and therefore challenging us to come along. He manages to fill the stage with his person, his suitcase, paper airplanes, and of course, labels. By the end of the show, the stage is littered with them. It is clear, when Joe labels the show "the end," that that is where he feels they belong.