In 2009, while in his final year studying drama at Exeter University, Joe Sellman-Leava took part in a racism and equality workshop led by Academy and Bafta award-winning actor Emma Thomson.

Seven years later and the work he began is now a fully formed and critically acclaimed play, Labels, which will launch Theatre Royal Stratford East’s new 80-seat theatre space before touring the UK, America and possibly India.

It is a sensitively crafted piece that explores racism in the UK, with a main focus on three themes: family, politics and a question that often goes: ‘Where you are from… But where are you really from?’

The family element in it is inspired by the racism Joe and his family experienced. Joe explains: “The main plot is my family story, a mixture of me talking about my family and talking about my dad’s heritage. He was born in Uganda but is Indian and so was raised in that culture in Uganda, but then he came to the UK at eight or nine years old, so I think for him there was a shared identity there.

“I parallel that with my own experiences of racism or jokes about heritage and identity and then I talk about my other family members, like my mum and dad meeting or my brother and sister. So there’s a strong family element but then among all that there’s me talking more generally about labelling or prejudice and why we use certain labels for people, that’s more didactic.”

The second component of the production explores the question: where are you from? A question that may well be innocuous, but still difficult to answer for immigrants or their offspring who consider themselves to be British and so will answer with the name of a British town and not a foreign country as the person may expect.

Joe elaborates on the intricacy of this: “Sometimes it is genuinely out of curiosity, people just want to know. I think, for me and for a lot of people, it gets a bit tricky or becomes slightly more offensive when your first answer isn’t enough.

“If you ask my white friend where they are from and they say London or Devon then often that’s enough. Whereas for me, often, I found, it’s then where are you really from. There’s a suspicion, almost a hidden implication that I’m lying.

“Then it becomes why are you asking this? Is it a barrier you can’t get past and then are you not willing to have a conversation until we’ve clarified it enough for you?

“It becomes complex and difficult to know, I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with asking that question. It’s all about context, as with a lot of these things.”

The third component in the piece is racism within politics and the media. Joe says: “I think it’s really found its way into the mainstream. There was certainly a change when UKIP started doing well in the polls. Whether they were the cause of the conversation coming to the forefront of political discussion and debate or whether they were just the crest of the wave I don’t know. They’re not the only far-right party.

“I think not just in Britain but in Europe, and in the run up to the American election, it’s certainly found its way into the mainstream; where talking a certain way about certain people is now acceptable. It’s kind of scary.”

I wondered what response the play had received and Joe assured me that, overall, it had been very positive.

He adds: “Some people disagree with specific points that I’ve made and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. I welcome people to disagree. I think it’s nice when someone does that because it makes a change, people are often keen to agree with you.

“There are one or two people who have found the show too didactic or too angry, but then there’s one or two people who haven’t found it didactic and angry enough.”

Actress Emma Thompson, who nurtured the initial stages of the piece, is pleased with the play, saying: “What a terrific piece. I love it. Simple, powerful, important and funny.”

Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, until Saturday, April 30. Details: 020 8534 0310