I had the pleasure of reading J'OUVERT by Yasmin Joseph; upon unwrapping the book, the image of two costume-clad black women and the name J’OUVERT adorned in big letters could only remind you of one thing: Carnival!

Yasmin Joseph, a multi-nominated award-winning London-based British-Caribbean writer, premiered J'OUVERT, her debut play, at Theatre 503 in 2019, before moving to the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2021. She is the writer-in-residence at Sister Pictures at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre, and I had the privileged opportunity to speak with the talented writer.

J'ouvert is based on three friends (Jade, Nadine, and Nisha) Notting Hill carnival experience in 2017 (the first carnival after the Grenfell Tower fire), exploring the sexual politics and culture of carnival. For me, Carnival is a celebration that Yoshi Alleyne describes as "freedom and liberation". In remembrance of my culture and ancestry, reminders of friendship and solidarity, and marching against injustices of gentrification and cultural appropriation, I delve into these main themes. Yasmin captured the carnival atmosphere and the validity of her story for others and my own.

For Yasmin Joseph, it highlights a "space for pride, to let loose, and to process grief. It's our spiritual new year with the people I love and feel safe with."

It brought me back into the world of carnival, which I love so much, reminiscing about my own similar experiences. Stepping beyond the confines of safety ropes, moving from a place of authenticity and like-minded people to an overcrowded maze-like war zone, dodging drink grenades to get food. Quick reunions with people you haven't seen in years, vibing with annual carnival friends, and a profound sense of community cohesion In J'OUVERT, Yasmin captured the essence of carnival beautifully, using the synergy of the movement director and DJ. Whether reading or watching this play, the audience is transported to the heat of the carnival experience. The spirited dancing, all the wukking-up—though it could have been more diversely representative, we universally resonate with the disapproving look aimed at those uninvited individuals without permission, encroaching on your dancing. The over-sexualisation of dancing, regardless of feminine or masculine presentation, brings back memories of questionable encounters. Even as a masculine presenting person, I have witnessed people being fetishized, objectified, and ogled at like a piece of meat. All chipping away at the authenticity of carnival, so many of us choose to stay close to the procession trucks, recognising that the carnival experience is inherently influenced by the roles we occupy.

However, friendship and solidarity in the face of fetishism, sexual harassment and assault, and arguments amongst friends, when it truly matters, stand as protectors, looking out for each other. My circle of friends and I had similar experiences during Carnival. Reading J'OUVERT, I felt the women and I were seen and understood. Yasmin depicts these interactions between women and men with chilling accuracy. She explains, "To give two young black women full command of the narrative through multi-rolling, not giving the space to these men, seeing these women take on men's attitudes and behaviours, she shows the pointless violence, aggressive attitude, and ignorance of young men in carnival remarkably. Men overcompensate by showing off and acting like they own women. Leaving women feeling uncomfortable and frustrated; they even engaged in a conversation. Women found refuge in the Carnival spirit, protection by the masquerade community, and abundant love received. I occasionally felt this throughout the play, true to my feelings every year I am there.

Yoshi compares the roles. She describes being a masquerader as 'the best experience' that one will ever have. Citing all access to the carnival route, no overcrowding, and togetherness with your band as the key benefits. In comparison, the role of a designer is an experience that differs. "The day feels like work, she said, checking on masqueraders fixing costumes. This role, while pivotal for the success of the carnival, seems to lack the same carefree revelry that characterises the masquerader experience.

Cultural appropriation and gentrification are themes throughout the play. The transformation of food stalls to be more 'inclusive',  to the older generation, who witnessed the youth taking over family stores and discarding traditions. As a Jamaican myself, I found Nisha's dialogue with the older Caribbeans, at times, to be out of place. However, after conversing with Yasmin, the intention of these familiar sayings was clear: to foster increased crowd engagement and create a sense of familiarity, which they did. Overall, I found the subtle acknowledgement of the carnival's history, purpose, and remembrance to be enjoyable in contrast to the gradual change over the years by the hands of the younger generations, capitalising on the culture and forgetting Carnival's rich history and purpose. Yasmin expressed this creatively through the two elders' relationship and conversation.

The focus on community marginalisation and disenfranchisement because of gentrification extends beyond the play and into wider contexts. Yasmin Joseph cites J'OUVERT is based in a London borough, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with the biggest wealth disparities. Therefore, it was not only necessary to pay tribute to the lives lost in Grenfell Tower but also to highlight Carnival as a living example of defiance against oppression.

I felt this personally as I played mas the year of Grenfell's tragedy. Its weight lingered throughout the day. Conversing with Yasmin shed light on how the subtle and sporadic mention of Grenfell in the play served as a reminder of the collective mourning and painful ache felt during that time. This, to me, was an emotional release of the pain from Grenfell's injustices, the surge in crime rates, and the occurrence of terrorist attacks. This holistic nature is mirrored in Yasmin Joseph's spiritual approach to education and celebration.

"Windrush, when my great-grandfather was one of the many people to come over in a time when West Indian folks were met with resistance, racism, and trouble. So, when I dance in Carnival, I let go and wukk up waistline, move my body anyway, and I feel and say, this is for you! Di wull ah unu,"~ Jayando Cole


Certain moments in the play brought back memories of witnessing Yoshi last year—her hands raised to the sky, tears in her eyes, swaying her hips, fully embracing the carnival spirit, and releasing her burdens. This echoes a spiritual encounter that resonates with everyone, a reflection of the exquisite experiences Yasmin so masterfully crafted within her work.

Carnival is when you're taken by carnival spirit: dancing, jumping, stamping, silence in joy, anger, regret, & remembrance. My carnival crew felt it that year. The friendship is so familiar, and the characters, although sometimes surprising, are all relatable. Differing personalities and dynamics within the friendship group were artistically represented, leaving me reminiscing about the many years the squad touched the road and the highs and lows of the journey we embark on together annually.

Last year, it overcame me with the excitement of being back on the road to Carnival after COVID. In the years before the pandemic, there was a sense of Carnival's decline—young people causing disruptions, newcomers exploiting the culture, treating it as any other summer festival. Carnival started to, dare I say it, get boring and tiring. Last year, after missing it for two years, realising we had taken it for granted. Jaya and I stayed in the heart of it all, having an exhilarating time, home again in our community with our people. Giving us some hope for 2023, although gentrification is still a present threat, we are surrounded by an abundance of love, culture, celebration, and remembrance. The authenticity of the carnival experience has become even more crucial. There are ongoing efforts from movements to keep its essence alive—a movement I'm proud to be a part of. By collectively controlling our narrative, we can ensure that carnival continues to be the annually anticipated time to celebrate and remember the ongoing fight for justice and equality.