Joe Sellman-Leava
Pleasance Courtyard

Labels Credit: Benjamin J Borley

Labels is the fun and engaging show that works beautifully on the Fringe.

The small space holding 55 is perfect for this intimate biographical show. Joe Sellman-Leava has written a gentle firestorm of an interactive and political production which addresses the labels we hurl at each other and ourselves.

It begs the question not what is prejudice (we know it when we see it) but how it permeates our life. For where do we draw the line when we evolve from preference to bias to prejudice?

Most of us don’t think ourselves as being prejudiced; we don’t want that label. It’s always someone else. But, to understand prejudice a little, one has only to look at the reasoning behind it.

Human beings feel safe within their own community, whatever that community might be. It could be family, fellow students, religious or ethnic origins, gender, age; the various sources are almost as endless in number as individuals.

I’m over 50 years old so I feel safe, comfortable with older adults. I separate myself from the young; they are wild, reckless, dangerous. I am black so I feel safe around other black people. I know the cultural signs that make me feel safe. I’m an American so I feel more at ease with other Americans. I know meanings that underlie words and actions. Suspenders are different, braces are different, biscuits are different. Senior citizens are old-aged pensioner.

And then there are all the bad words. The “n” word and “c” word don’t carry the same kind of baggage in the UK as in the US. A black person, or African American, can use the “n” word with each other (at least the young do) but it could cause an uproar if used by a white person. And no one uses the word faggot without impunity. Paki, or… well, the expletives are endless and change from community to community. You get the picture.

A not infrequent occurrence: a (1) white (2) women of a certain (3) age walking (4) alone (5) at night on a (6) poorly lit street in an (7) unknown neighbourhood sees walking toward her a (8) large group of (9) black, (10) young (11) men and is afraid. Eleven different jumping off areas in one sentence.

Maybe only half of these at once and she would feel safe. But which half depends on her “community”. Is she prejudiced because she crosses to the other side of the street? But I don’t think that this is what Mr Sellman-Leava is addressing. We’ve gone past “preference” but aren’t quite to “prejudice”.

Mr Sellman-Leava as writer and performer of Labels only starts the dialogue on the topic of prejudice. He is speaking from his own garden of prejudice; his reaction to it. He barely touches on the endless variety of hate. But it really isn’t hate. It is ignorance and, worse, self-preservation. Back to our “safe community”.

I admire Mr Sellman-Leava’s script and performance. His vulnerability and unjaundiced youth are engaging and charming; just what Labels needs to make it work. We are part of his community for the hour.

Director/dramaturg Katharina Reinthaller has gotten the most of the production. The lighting is perfect for the project. And the use of the sticky labels throughout helps put across the point. (As a personal preference, I would have liked Mr Sellman-Leava to have used labels “man” and “woman” in his retelling of his online encounter.)

Here in Edinburgh with so many productions coming from so many different countries (communities), we can learn about each other.

Reviewer: Catherine Henry Lamm

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