Jazmine stands on the precipice, halfway between her Somerset hometown and the theatre school dream. She’s used to this torn feeling, that tummy tug we all feel in the limbo between school and work: a general ‘what now?’ that’s only heightened by her mixed race heritage marking her an outsider. Natasha Marshall’s Half Breed is a semi-autobiographical performance, poetic and warm, though in its conclusion there’s still room for growth.
With a last minute drama school audition launched on her by her primary caregiver grandmother, Jaz finds herself trying to navigate a Shakespeare monologue and her best friend Brogan’s new boyfriend, Mitchell. He’s a bundle of bad qualities which would almost feel unrealistic if it weren’t for the fact everyone knows somebody like him back home: aggressive, braggadocious, the kind who treats their girlfriend no better than a good wristwatch. Marshall gets to flex her range here when embodying Mitchell, venom flying out as he spits at the only non-white people in town. Marshall whips violently between Jaz’s inner monologue and her outer laughter during these sequences: it’s easy to understand why she stays quiet as a survival strategy.
If Jaz’s mixed race heritage manifests itself in her indecision on where she belongs, her rage at Mitchell finds its home in her Shakespeare monologue. Marshall chooses Hermione’s plea from The Winter’s Tale. It’s a less obvious choice (Hamlet’s the king of indecision, after all) but after Jaz’s home is vandalised, Marshall uses the words of another threatened woman. By all logic, Jaz should be terrified- and even after her outburst condemning Mitchell’s behaviour and the town’s attitude toward race, there’s still an incredibly realistic sense of unease in the air. Real life isn’t a viral video: there’s no guarantee that Jaz’s chance to stand up won’t end with horrible consequences. Names will continue to be called on the street – as sure as the word painted on Jaz’s house is no new slur – and having to leave the auditorium without an assurance that the characters will be left in the comfort of a happy ending is striking.
Slurs expand from racial to hit on sexuality when Jaz reveals Mitchell’s homosexual affair. The surprise of this definitely smacks in the moment, but once the air clears I can’t help feeling adding this element to Mitchell as a character is gratuitous. Marshall packs the reveal with a punch that completely tears down Mitchell’s defences – but by “other”ing Mitchell himself, is this designed to stir the audience’s sympathy? At this moment it’s almost as if Mitchell’s latent sexuality overshadows his violent actions – arguably a repressed self could explain, if not excuse, his outbursts of rage but to what extent? There doesn’t seem enough time to unpack this in detail. Again, we’re left with the open ending.
Over Marshall’s head are suspended a trove of crystalline lamps, dim until we see a moment of tenderness between Jaz and Brogan. It’s the flame of their friendship, kindling quietly over the events of the story, but Jaz’s final act shatters the lights. As the fragments clatter around her, Marshall’s illuminated by the lamps inside. It carries a sense of growing for the chrysalis-like Jaz: now the homemade trappings have come away, she stands in her most genuine light. So, it causes me to wonder, were the shades a symbol of the bonds between Jaz and Brogan, or the fencing holding Jaz back? In a play all about duality and uncertainty, couldn’t it be both?