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Bringing Notting Hill to Nottingham: Actress Sapphire Joy Discusses J'Ouvert

12 July 21 interview: Frieda Wignall
photos: Helen Murray

Set during a single afternoon at the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival post-Grenfell Tower fire, J’Ouvert is only the second play by a black female writer to appear on the West End. We talk to star actress Sapphire Joy about the vibrant, soul-stirring production as it moves to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal...

Can you tell us a bit about J'Ouvert?
J'Ouvert is set at Notting Hill Carnival so we've got loads of music, loads of dancing. Obviously we're wukkin’ up our waist! But it's intertwined with looking at the people who have come before us. It reminds me of that saying 'standing on the shoulders of giants', what the ancestors have done in order to create spaces for us now so that we can hopefully move more freely than they did. J’Ouvert is also about wanting to be a woman and be free in a world that still doesn't allow us that, even in 2017 - or some would say even now, 2021. It also looks at friendships and how they change over time as people step into different chapters of their lives, what that means for the old them and the new relationships they will build and grow.

Tell us a bit about your character, Jade.
There are elements of Jade that are very much like myself. She is so loyal to her friends and I admire that, that's something I try to adhere to everyday. But there's also just a gutsy bit about her that I've been like, 'you know what, maybe I can adopt some of that as well'. Just being a bit more assertive and standing your ground.

J'Ouvert was your West End debut - how was that experience?
It was wonderful! It was also... unexpected and just absolutely amazing. I played Jade back in 2019 at Theatre503, which is a fringe theatre in London. It's small and intimate and the right space for anyone whether you're an established actor or new to the game. I loved it there, but moving onto the West End was just incredible - to be able to move and play in a larger space. I don't want to give too much away but we've also got a revolving stage which we didn't have last time!

It’s a fantastic show that tunes into a lot of things about the human experience that we can all identify with

J'Ouvert is a play that is joyful but also deals with anger and loss. How has this resonated with you?
Dare I mention the last year and a half that everyone has experienced globally? We’re still in a pandemic, I don't want to act like it's suddenly disappeared, but it was the perfect play for me to enter back into the working world in because it has all this joy. The music, the dancing, the laughter. The play isn't related to the pandemic, not at all, but just being able to reconnect with people, be in the same space with people, to touch and to hug people again - obviously safely - all of that was really helpful. People who’ve seen it have said J’Ouvert was the perfect first play to see after the pandemic and the lockdown and I completely understand why. I'm also really glad that I could be a part of that. 

What difference did it make having a small cast of only four (three actors, one DJ) and an all-female production?
What’s interesting is that the original version didn’t have a live DJ. Having the DJ has added such a joyful element to the space. While, yes, it’s a play and we’ve got our lines, the DJ hypes us up at the right moments. Sometimes it’s like an extra voice, just really pinning down what’s going on in each scene. Having an all-female cast is brilliant. The play discusses womanhood, women's voices and bodies and we're also looking at the history of Carnival, which, in terms of Notting Hill Carnival, was created by a woman so it just seems very fitting. It's a joy to do every night. 

Are you excited to bring the play to Nottingham?
100%. I know that Londoners can be a little bit short-sighted when it comes to theatre like we can only play theatres in London because that's where everything is happening, but I've been so fortunate to have toured quite a bit and I know for a fact that there are amazing audiences all around the UK. Most definitely we need to bring this play outside of London, because we know that there are carnivals outside of London, too. We may be honing in on Notting Hill Carnival, but I think anyone who goes to Carnival, lives near a carnival route or has even been to a carnival outside the UK can definitely tune into this and understand the experiences. And for those that haven't, they're still welcome because it's a fantastic show that tunes into a lot of things about the human experience that we can all identify with.  

What messages do you want theatregoers to walk out with?
As I hinted at before, I’d emphasise the people that came before us who made a way in a time when it really wasn’t easy. The Windrush generation and all the things they’ve done to give people like me a better life, able to enjoy things like Notting Hill Carnival. All the people who have set up carnivals around the UK so we do have a chance to celebrate black communities and history. Also, understanding that women – we have rights! Look after us, respect us, allow us to be what we want to be. Whether we choose to be outside in the summer in a bikini or whether we decide to be covered head to toe, we still deserve respect. We are not anyone’s object. And lastly: celebration is needed. Joy is a form of resistance, especially considering the eighteen months we’ve had. Let’s not to forget to celebrate – that might be by dancing to music by yourself or it may by with family and friends at a carnival or a party. Don’t forget the joy.

Celebration is needed. Joy is a form of resistance

Diane Abbott is a fan of the show - which Black British figures and legacies have most inspired you?
This is going to maybe sound like a cop out, but I have to say all of them. There's no one person – there's that saying 'no man is an island'. Collectively, these Black British people have done such amazing things to help themselves and future generations like myself. Having Diane Abbott come to the first show was absolutely outstanding. Knowing that there's a plethora of people who were there whether they knew it or not, directly or indirectly through their work, through their activism, their campaigning, their fighting, through just being themselves. They have created a space where someone like me can be on the West End. I also wanna big up my family. My grandmother, who came over from Jamaica, and my mum who encouraged me to follow my dream.

How did you get into acting?
I can't remember my first acting class, but I just know that from a very young age my mum was always supportive of creative work as well as academic work. She would always encourage me and my brother to go and do stuff. We've done dance, we've done gymnastics, we've done sports - anything that was out there, we've tried it! I just fell in love with acting. Did it at GCSE and A-Level. I was lucky enough that my college had a partnership with a drama school. I'd never heard of drama schools before and was 'Oh okay, I'll do that'. Went to drama school, got an agent. My mum's been a supporter all the way. I'm really fortunate for that.

What do you think needs to change to make theatre more accessible for under-represented voices?
How long have you got? In short: allow the change to happen. That's me talking to everyone at the top and all the way through. Allow the people who are often misrepresented or under-represented to guide you in what needs to happen. There's no point doing it at the lower levels, it needs to be all the way through because that's how you affect change. But first you need to be open to that change. It makes the world a better place. I promise you, by allowing change to happen and allowing misrepresented or under-represented voices to have firm places within organisations from the top to the bottom it makes it a better place. We understand ourselves better, we make more money because we're opening out to people to different people from various backgrounds, and it helps future generations come into careers like acting. Artistic director, board member, casting director, directing, lighting design, sound design, whatever it is, it makes it a healthier place for people to work when we hear all voices. So please, go with the change, be open to it. It will serve you, your audience, your staff, everyone involved. 

You can see J’Ouvert at Nottingham Theatre Royal between 21-24 July. For tickets and more information, visit the Theatre Royal website

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