Identity, race, belonging and more at the Edinburgh Fringe

Reviews of 'Labels' and 'Sick of the Fringe'.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

‘Where are you from?’ To some, these four words are rife with baggage, hidden meanings, judgement, and a sense of questioning of one’s authentic sense of self. Joe Sellman-Leava and the Worklight Theatre’s production of Labels, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, seeks to tackle and deconstruct this seemingly innocuous question and the meaning it presents to those from immigrant, and particularly ethnic minority, backgrounds.

Mr Sellman-Leava’s play is a one-man show in which he, quite realistically, embodies various personalities to showcase the current political discourse surrounding immigration, interwoven with his own personal experience of being an individual of bi-racial descent, born to a white British mother and a Ugandan Asian father. His personal narrative is often striking and realistically depicts the nuances and tightropes walked by ethnic minorities in Britain, from the construction of a surname, to systemic discrimination as experienced in the labour market, to even facing racist comments on dating applications such as Tinder!

Interacting with the audience, Sellman-Leava gets them to ‘step in the shoes’ of his various characters. Between his personal narrative, he alludes to the historical narrative of British immigration policy, channelling Enoch Powell and his famous 1968 ‘rivers of blood speech’, Idi Amin, David Cameron and Ed Miliband reflecting on the migrant boat crisis, and quotes from celebrities such as Jeremy Clarkson. Whilst his narrative is framed through the lens of the British Asian experience, his performance is accessible and relatable to all audiences, who get a glimpse of how, despite the purported view of tolerance of British society, racism continues to be systemically entrenched.

There’s much social psychology in how Labels seeks to deconstruct the prevalent notion of what it means to be British – is it a race-bound construct, or can answers such as ‘I’m from Devon/Cheltenham’ from an ethnic minority be accepted at face value? Labels alludes to group processes involved in Other-isation – whereby even an ethnic name can be seen to influence job prospects, and potentially stir up feelings of disenfranchisement. Notions of authenticity and of multiple identities come into play – particularly when Sellman-Leava articulates repeated experiences of his encountering ‘But you ain’t British, mate, you’re Asian’, despite him being bi-racial and growing up in a middle-class British family. Moscovici’s social representation theory comes to light in his examples – representations of a particular ethnic group are perpetuated and become accepted as ‘authentic’.

Labels astutely raises the issue of the ‘politics of representation’ – if negative stereotypes of immigrants continue to run rampant, and acceptance into the larger British mainstream is denied, can ethnic ghetto-isation be surprising? Labels cleverly uses political and personal narratives to enable questions and conversations – if we can identify with Sellman-Leava’s own story at a human level, why then are we immune to those ‘other’ migrants who are dying on boats to reach safe havens? With immigration a current hot topic, Labels forces us to examine whether we are merely paying lip service to multiculturalism when confronted with our own social representations as to who can really be ‘British’.

- Reviewed by Karim Mitha, who is at the University of Edinburgh

Sick of the Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Sick of the (Edinburgh) Fringe, supported by the Wellcome Trust, aims to ‘inspire collaboration between science and the arts’. Organiser and compere Brian Lobel, who does shows about his own health issues, has spoken of creating a ‘space for shared vulnerability’, and it is certainly good to see room for difficult stories around medicine, mental and physical wellbeing and how they are expressed at the Fringe.

This is its first year, and it is far-reaching, with ambitious aims to be open and inquiring, to follow as well as lead. Inevitably this means it is also confusing and contradictory. The title, Sick of the Fringe, implies issues of health and sickness, and yet this is not the stated aim. I came as a psychotherapist and the first discussion about depression and Bryony Kimmings’ show Fake It ‘Til You Make It (reviewed in the September issue) seemed to fit territory I am familiar with. The second was Simon McBurney discussing his one-man show, starting with headphones for the audience (for very good reasons) and ending with an extended riff on the need for changing consciousness of climate change and the environment, very similar to that of John Burnside at the Book Festival. I also attended Sir Colin Blakemore’s talk on perception, and Liz Carr’s brilliant discussion about disability and assisted suicide.

I was enchanted and inspired and challenged by all the talks and events. I was also confused: I like to be able to get a grip on what is happening, understand the narrative and comfortably land at the end. However, I know that is unrealistic, and usually means that uncertainties have been missed, and valuable loops and byways not explored. Indeed by the end, I was no clearer about the aims of the programme or where it was leading, but I had enjoyed myself very much and had great conversations.

Most powerfully I have been reminded of the importance of awareness of the needs of the environment we live in. John Burnside and Simon McBurney, both passionately concerned at our slide into over-consumption and degradation of the oceans in particular, left me wondering where and how the world of the arts can help us to take this seriously, both as individuals in our own lives and as political animals influencing what is happening in our country and our world. Maybe this is the place where arts and science meet. Finally, as a psychotherapist, I wanted to join in and talk about what I know of the body–mind connection, as it felt so different from the world of theatre. Can the world of psychotherapy find a place in this discussion, addressing health and wellbeing and the life and death questions raised by the Sick of the Fringe speakers?

- Reviewed by Cathie Wright, Edinburgh

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