Natasha Marshall’s moving one woman play masterfully combines humour, pain and self-actualisation. She offers incredible insight into the impact of racism at a personal level, as Jaz, the only mixed race girl in an almost all-white West Country village.
With impressive versatility, she flicks between laughter and panic, her cognitive dissonance palpable as she examines the pressure to laugh along with your own dehumanisation. She often speaks cheerfully about deeply upsetting events, and we realise that this dismissal of the importance and severity of her own experiences has always been required of her. Marshall perfectly communicates the difficulty of trying to stick up for yourself when everyone else is laughing along with those attacking you, as well as of trying to pursue your ambitions with so much to cope with. As Jaz goes over the lines of a Shakespeare monologue for a potentially life-changing Drama School audition, racial slurs and invasive thoughts invade, drowning out her attempts.
The single actor and sparse set in no way limit the play’s immersive impact. Marshall becomes gossiping villagers, obnoxious lads, and Jaz’s loud-mouthed but fearfully intransigent best friend Brogan, transporting us to this claustrophobic village. All characters are embodied with thick accents and impeccably caricatured body language. The lighting is also extremely effective in drawing the audience into each scene. When Jaz has taken drugs, her increasing disorientation is accompanied by swirling purplish lighting, and strong emotion causes the lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling to throb in time with her laboured breathing.
Perhaps most impressive is Marshall’s ability to create complex and moving relationships between characters who can only be portrayed alternately. Jaz’s grandmother, in fact, is only briefly embodied, but from her priorities, and Jaz’s perceptions of her, we receive a vivid image of a strong, generous woman, always protecting and uplifting her granddaughter. She is desperate for Jaz to pursue her passions, and rushes to wash racial slurs off the wall before she comes home. Jaz’s muddled sense of worry, guilt, responsibility and love for her grandmother are beautifully articulated.
Jaz’s relationship with Brogan is even more compelling, an old friendship propped up by traditions of piling rocks at the foot of a tree they frequent to mark their presence, and avoiding acknowledging racism. Marshall examines the sad truth of how both fear and courage, as well as simply how busy life can become, can divide friends. Jaz’s fear stops her from saving Brogan from her boyfriend Mitchell’s abuse, but her later courage is also symbolised as destroying the piles of rocks under their tree, when she stands up to Mitchell as he tells the story about chasing a Pakistani woman and her children out of the Co-op. The fact that standing up for herself is represented as this destruction of friendship indicates how isolating prejudice can be, even from well meaning people.
At this moment of conflict, the lighting and simple set of reflective, hanging lamps become particularly effective. The mirrored shades fall and seem to shatter as she breaks the unequal peace that Brogan has encouraged, leaving the simple light bulbs shining unencumbered. As the first movement on stage other than Marshall herself, this creates a startling yet poignant moment.
Half Breed offers a heartbreaking yet often humorous account of the personal cost of racism, forming a beautiful coming of age story about finding a voice, and learning to stick up for yourself and those you love.