Artists, by definition, take their private lives into public spaces. Public spaces are terrifying because they tend to attract the public. Once the lights go up, that public—unerring, unforgiving, unknown—becomes a jury. Meanwhile, the artist awaits the verdict, worrying she is too light- or dark-skinned, too unrefined or educated, too green or dated—a thousand ways of not being good enough.
Thus the artist thirsts for validation. Affection. Applause. Awards. Anything so she can believe in herself. But there’s a thin line between believing in yourself and believing yourself. Believing in yourself is thinking you can be great. Believing yourself is thinking you already are.
Sabrena McDonald is one of the most talented under-30 thespians working in Jamaica, and one of the few capable of carrying a one-woman show. But she does not carry Slim Actress, which had its only performance on Saturday night, and the reason lies in that thin line.
First, form. A one-person show is almost impossible to pull off, because that one person must hold our attention, broken only once for intermission, for two hours. There is no one to prompt a forgotten line, no one to rescue a flat moment, no one to elicit a raw emotion. Failure is a clear and present danger. Amongst the myriad terrors of performance, it stands alone—it is the King Kong of acting. Like the beast, it is best approached with great care, great experience and a great idea (see Trevor Rhone’s Bellas Gate Boy—he was 62 and believed in himself).
Amongst the myriad terrors of performance, the one-person show stands alone
Ms McDonald, brave as she is, lacks two out of three. Despite the help of some experienced hands (Trevor Nairne lent direction, Michael Holgate lent movement), Slim Actress has no unifying theme. The material is a motley collection of monologues, poetry and dance written by the artist over a period of years, some of which gathered local awards, including one from the Prime Minister. Not too shabby, but not too coherent, either. (Teneile Warren masked the arbitrariness of the pieces in her showcase last year by sharing onstage duties with a half-dozen friends.)
Second, tone. Slim Actress is, as the program reminds us, “a celebration of 18 years as a theatre artist.” Note to Ms McDonald: When you are only 30, do not celebrate the past eighteen years. Work your ass off—humbly, preferably—and hope like hell you’ll be around eighteen years hence. Nobody cares what you did at 12, unless you can make us care.
But there is much to like about Slim Actress, and the slim actress behind it. For one thing, she almost pulls it off. In ’99 and a Half’, an older woman wrestles with a real problem—whether her life qualifies for the local version of the afterlife. McDonald is at her most relaxed, which allows her to find a comfortable rhythm—the words land on the ear like fallen leaves on grass. In ‘Better Off a Boy’, a businesswoman shrugs off the self-imposed shackles of her father’s gaze and workplace testosterone. McDonald is at her most honest, which allows her to be effective—the real-life loss of her father writ large.
Ms McDonald has range, which is shorthand for saying she can play both a fundamentalist and an atheist, both uptown and downtown. And she has energy, which will mature into presence. She is a highly valuable commodity—female, black, driven, talented—with all the right tools. In other words, she is perfectly positioned to grow into greatness. But, unless she puts down the Prime Minister’s award and reinstates a preposition, she won’t quite pull it off.