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30 April 2018

Natasha Marshall on Half Breed: “It gets difficult reminding people you’re not white”

The rising star talks about her “semi-autobiographical” work and growing up mixed-race in a small West Country town.

By Rohan Banerjee

Natasha Marshall’s Half Breed is a triumph for identity politics. Timely in the age of Brexit, when race relations in the United Kingdom could be best described as strained, the punchy and poignant one-woman play about the unique pressures of being mixed-race is now on a national tour.

Half Breed started its life as a ten-minute poem written by Marshall, before being developed into an hour-long performance as part of a partnership between Talawa Theatre Company and Soho Theatre. The show debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017, but now Marshall is “ready to perform to a wider range of audiences”.

Half Breed tells the story of Jazmin, a 17-year-old mixed-race girl debating whether to leave the overwhelmingly white West Country for drama school in more multicultural London.

The play, Marshall explains, is “semi-autobiographical”. She tells me backstage on the tour’s opening night: “I think it was important to fictionalise some aspects of it, because I didn’t want to overshare some of the stuff that had happened. It’s important to protect yourself to a degree, and those close to you, but also it gives you a chance to have a bit more freedom with the characters and explore multiple issues, which are not just limited to your own.”

While the plot might enjoy some creative license, the issues it tackles are very real. Jazmin, the daughter of a white mother and an absent black father, is perennially unsure of herself and her standing in society. One line from the play sticks out: “I am that mixed-race kid, like 50-50, on the fence, lukewarm, in between, maybe. Seriously, even my personality is indecisive, like my brain is just as confused as my skin.”

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Half Breed offers an important consideration of an aspect of the racism debate that is too often overlooked: the racism that prescribes the need to qualify one’s appearance with one’s personality. Marshall, who grew up in Trowbridge and whose mother is Kenyan, says: “When you’re mixed-race you’re prone to comments from both sides. I’ve been accused of being ‘too white’. So what do I need to do to be blacker? It’s not a contest, but some people seem to think it is.”

For the character Jazmin, although she is half white she is still known reductively as “the only black in the village”. Jazmin’s best friend Brogan, who is white, does not see the appeal of London life and is ready to settle down exactly where she started. Her boyfriend Mitchell, an unemployed yet entitled white chauvinist, tells racist jokes loudly at the local pub.

Jazmin is consistently torn between the quiet life or “passing for white”, camouflaging her discomfort with awkward laughter, or standing up to the village’s status quo “at the risk of being labelled a trouble-maker”.

Despite the challenges involved in being mixed-race in a predominately white West Country town, Marshall, 26, insists that she doesn’t resent where she’s from. “It’s still home, obviously. And when I left I still missed the people and they are still my friends. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard. It does get difficult having to remind people sometimes that you’re not white too, so some of those jokes actually do hurt. The problem is that it’s too normal and it’s exhausting to have to have the same arguments over and over again.”

Wiltshire, the county in which Trowbridge resides, voted 52.4 per cent in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. Did the referendum and the nature of the Leave campaign embolden racism in small towns already at odds with immigration policy? Marshall sighs. “Yes, I can’t even lie. It’s shit. It [the Leave campaign] made the most of people’s anxieties.”

She points again, however, to this “weird exception-making” that led to some people in her hometown “trying to convince me that Brexit was actually a good thing”. She laughs wearily before adding: “I think people end up grouping you how they want to group you, you know what suits their narrative. I know that I’ve got white friends who might even consider me to just be white. So they’d make throwaway comments like ‘paki’ and not realise that it might offend me. They don’t think that’s wrong, though. They don’t get it. With the Brexit thing, I had people telling me to vote Leave because of immigration. I was like, do you remember that my mum’s Kenyan?”

Half Breed is an important, if at times uncomfortable, watch about the harsh realities of “being unable to fit in while constantly being told to try harder”. Marshall, tipped with good reason as a rising star on the stage, captures all of her characters superbly. Her fantastic range of facial expressions and accent-switching offset the need for any costume changes, while a nod must also be offered to director Miranda Cromwell whose cleverly picked music and mood lighting choices, mean only a Spartan selection of props are needed to immerse any audience effectively.

Marshall admits that she “came close to quitting” acting altogether after struggling in her own first few years post-drama school, but completing Half Breed represented a turning point. “I spent a long time waiting for someone to come and save me,” she says, “because as a woman that’s something you’re convinced needs to happen. But no one ever did. Half Breed was me saving myself. I had been playing a lot of stereotypical roles after drama school, nothing big or important. This was a chance to actually write the sort of character I felt I could play, and finishing this, after taking so long to write it, was a big moment. I’d like to think that Half Breed can help women, particularly women of colour, to find their own voice and speak up for themselves. I want my characters to challenge the idea that women just have to fall into line.”

Half Breed is on a UK tour including performances in Bangor, Bristol, Swindon, Newcastle, Manchester, Plymouth and Natasha’s hometown Trowbridge from Tue 24 April to Sat 9 June. Full details here: https://sohotheatre.com/events/half-breed-uk-tour/

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