'J'Ouvert' star Sapphire Joy on creating space for the underrepresented in theatre
Notting Hill Carnival may be cancelled for the second year running, and swathes of people may not be congregating to dance together for a while, but theatre can transport us anywhere. J’Ouvert at the Harold Pinter Theatre has audiences imagining they’re partying all night long.
Set at the world-famous carnival, J’Ouvert (pronounced like duvet) follows three friends as they find their personal space in a world that should be theirs. Yasmin Joseph’s carnival play premiered at Theatre503 in 2019, and has now danced its way to the West End as part of Sonia Friedman Productions RE:EMERGE season.
We spoke to Sapphire Joy, who is making her West End debut in J’Ouvert, about the carnival atmosphere and how it translates to the stage, as well as the importance of telling human stories.
J’Ouvert is at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 3 July.
J’Ouvert tickets are on sale now.
Who do you play in J'Ouvert, and what themes are tackled in the play?
Set in 2017, a big year for West London, J’Ouvert is all about events at Notting Hill Carnival. We follow three friends, Nadine, Nisha, and the character I play Jade, as they navigate through carnival. They each go through a transition exploring who they are and who they want to be in the future, as well as thinking about all those that have come before them in order to make carnival happen.
Jade goes through an interesting transition, being caught in between an old friend and a new friend. Neither Nadine or Nisha are bad influences, and it’s not about pitting them against each other, but they bring out different sides in Jade to help her step into her own.
Does J’Ouvert accurately represent what happens at Notting Hill Carnival?
Yes! We’re only three actors and one DJ, so there’s only so much we can do, but we really do bring it alive. Yasmin Joseph (the playwright) just brings all aspects of Notting Hill Carnival together.
The music is so good too; you can’t have Notting Hill Carnival without the music. And trust me, there is plenty of music. If you come in early, you’re in for some nice little tunes just before the show starts. We really take our time to explore the different characters that you would meet at carnival. It’s all in there too, including the worn costumes that may have been out in the rain!
You mentioned Yasmin Joseph bringing carnival alive, and plays by Black British women have only just begun to be seen in the West End (Nine Night being the first). Do you think that J’Ouvert will help encourage diversity in the West End?
Absolutely. Fiirst of all I have to big up Yasmin again. She is the second Black female writer in the West End, and the first one at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which is such an accomplishment. With plays, they’re bringing in new audiences to the theatre, and stories where people can say “that’s a part of my lived experience.” We’re really opening up theatre for everyone, and after the 18 months we’ve had, it’s long overdue.
Have there been any artists that have inspired and influenced throughout your career?
There’s so many, and there’ll always be new people that inspire me. One of the things I’m always grateful for are the people I work with, and that’s the whole team from actors to the crew. Without everyone, the show can’t go on.
It’s amazing to work with someone like Gabby [Gabrielle Brooks], who has been in shows since she was like 8, with just a wealth of experience and knowledge. Our DJ in J’Ouvert is making her acting debut, so she’s coming from a different perspective. There are loads of artists that I can mention, but it’s people who are close to home that really just inspire me day in, day out. J’Ouvert is my West End debut, and this quiet calm has come over me. The fact we are in the middle of a pandemic makes it even more special. Considering the climate of the world, this is what I’m doing? I’m so fortunate. I’m so blessed.
J’Ouvert is part of the RE:Emerge Season at the Harold Pinter Theatre, with new works coming to the West End. What are you hoping to see change in the West End after the pandemic?
I just want a mix and blend of theatre, of voices, and of people. I love the classics: the Shakespeare plays, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull. They’re very important and their legacies are important too. But let's also make space for the new writing. Let’s hear some voices and writing from people that have a British experience and heritage from other parts of the world, because we can all connect to that. When we go to the theatre, it’s about a human experience. Even if it’s sci-fi or fantasy, there’s a part of a human experience and we can all relate to that in some way. Let’s hear that!
Let’s also create space for those who are both misrepresented and underrepresented. I'd love to hear and see more in the West End from those who are Deaf and disabled, people of colour, more female writers. Why not? We’ve got the space for it. The RE:Emerge Season has shown there’s space for it.
J’Ouvert was part of the BBC Lights Up initiative. Does it differ performing to a TV camera as opposed to performing in front of an audience?
There’s definitely a change. I’m so pleased that it got filmed because it can reach audiences far beyond we can with the run that we’ve got. But, Yasmin wrote this as a play for an audience, and with the audience in, it grows.
Knowing there’s an audience there brings a new sense of "I’m trying to reach you." This play was made for an audience. But in the first scene on television, they’re able to hone in on different actors to capture certain movements. All the wonderful things that you can do with a camera that you can’t necessarily do in the theatre.
Why should audiences see J’Ouvert at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and what are you hoping audiences take away?
Come one, come all. This is a play about carnival and it does centre around the Black British experience. If you’ve been to carnival, you know it’s for everyone. Yes, we’ve got our Soca music playing and all the Caribbean flags on display. But this is about people coming and celebrating a legacy, a history, and resilience. You can’t keep still with the music, but there’s certain songs that always come on and make me move.
Theatre is on and we’ve had a really long journey which isn’t over. We were hoping the restrictions would be lifted, but that’s not the case. We’re still doing our thing with only 50 percent capacity. You’ll get a lot of laughter, joy and also lots of time to sit and think about where we are and what we’ve been through, but those people that have come before us.
Photo credit: Sapphire Joy in J'Ouvert (Photo by Helen Murray)