BWW Reviews: Personal Storytelling is Front and Center with SELF PORTRAIT at Capital Fringe
Admittedly, it takes a lot for me to really love a solo show whether it's a situation of a writer telling his or her personal story alone onstage or a case where an actor embodies character(s) others have created for them. I think there are those few that work really, really well due to the tremendous mix of an exceptional performer and a compelling and well-written script, many more that I can see the good in due to the script or the performer, and others still that leave me asking, "why?" for a myriad of reasons. As presented at the Gearbox under the auspices of the now nearly completed Capital Fringe Festival, Sasha Sinclair's autobiographical solo show, Self Portrait, is one of the ones that, for me, falls into the middle category.
Sasha's personable nature, confidence, and natural warmth are immediately apparent as she enters the stage at the intimate Gearbox. As she introduces herself and asks whether we, the audience, are interested in hearing a story, it's clear this is not a case of there being an unmalleable barrier between the conveyer and recipient of the story. It's obvious the story she's going to tell is a personal one and one that's going to be heavily influenced by her love for artistic expression (among other things, she's a painter).
It's a story, essentially, of a woman trying to figure out her identity and consider how her experiences - including the many she probably wished she could forget - shape who she is as a person and artist. The story, when looked at with a broad brush, is a familiar one. We have a young woman growing up in the South (Virginia/North Carolina) who lost her mother at a young age and is ultimately raised by other family concerned with churchgoing and maintaining proper appearances. As an escape from the strict world that she inhabited as an older child/teenager/young adult, she finds the world of the performing arts - theatre, painting, singing, and more - which give her great joy and freedom. After years of struggle to find her place in the world and a dark moment that makes it clear a change is needed, she leaves North Carolina in the 1990s for DC where her opportunities for artistic expression blossom. She finds the acceptance she craves, ample opportunities to do what she loves, and chances to figure out who she really is and stay true to that identity. A family situation forces her to return to North Carolina and confront her past. All these steps along her challenging journey are key in defining her self-portrait (literally and figuratively) - even the hidden parts.
As is probably clear, the story, as told by Sinclair, is essentially a linear one that tracks with her childhood up until her present life in DC. She embodies herself - her older self and her present self - as well as those friends, family, and other contacts, that have strongly influenced her life path. Elements of her life not covered in her stories are presented in the form of PowerPoint slides that provide the audience with (sometimes humorous) timelines between scene breaks. They largely concern her life as a college student and the few years that follow before a move to DC.
So, here's the deal. Sinclair's story is not the most interesting one I ever heard and, if told by anyone other than herself, it wouldn't be one that necessarily was crying to be heard. Indeed, many of the elements of her personal journey could be replicated if told by any budding artist who sought creativity as a means of escape from life's difficult realities or confining circumstances, and as a means to define one's self. What Sinclair does have going for her though, is that it's her story and as she tells it, it's abundantly clear that it means something to her. She puts on no pretense that she's educating the audience on a particular theme or idea; there are no airs of self-importance. She's simply - as storytellers do - sharing her story. True, there were moments of her tripping over her words at the performance I witnessed, but those could be mainly forgotten because the atmosphere she created - along with Director Regie Cabico (a solo performer himself) - was more like the carefree and relaxed sharing of a deeply personal story with friends in an informal setting. A few minimal costume shifts here and there, a few lighting and sound cues, and even fewer props are all that are needed because of her deep connection to the material.
Performance wise, the best moments in her show come when she's embodying herself because that's clearly (and not surprisingly) what she's most comfortable doing. Otherwise - with the exception of Ms. Pritchard, a woman who introduced her to the world outside of the small town American South - there's usually not a clear delineation between characters in her performance. True, the script may distinguish one character from another with (at times) rich details - her grandmother and a nurse in her grandmother's nursing home are two good examples - but the way Sasha embodies most of them as an actress isn't as specific in terms of how she uses her voice and body as is probably needed. The choices she makes seem to be largely based on very fundamental templates. Whether this is an acting problem, a direction problem, or a combination thereof is not clear, but the situation could improve.
Again, while the strength of this show lies in the very personal and engaging way in which she shares her story, the structure she employs to tell it could use some improvements. Logically, the linear approach to telling her story makes sense because it is an autobiography. The similarities between the opening and ending - reminding us of Sasha's artistic pursuits - ensure there are solid bookends. No false ending here. However, the way she transitions from one important event in her life to another is sometimes choppy and sometimes marked with startling changes of tone. The best example of where this problem manifests would probably be when she discusses her entry into DC and the incident that made her choose to move to the city. PowerPoint slides - as I previously stated - used to fill in some of the time gaps don't necessarily make for solid transitions either. One could make the case that they are also overused without much payoff. If they need to be used, one might consider subscribing to the standard rules at play when creating any presentation - limit the number of words displayed, use slides as support and not a focus, and don't give all content away on slides. While that guidance is applicable to the corporate/government/academic worlds, I do believe it should also pertain to live theatre if slides are used for information sharing rather than to establish setting.
Likewise, some of the elements in her script that proved most interesting to me were skirted by in favor of a lengthy description of an altercation with a family member upon her return to North Carolina to take care of family situation. One example of a life-defining story that I thought got shortchanged is her attendance at a private school where she was the only African American and her relatives' attitude toward developing relationships with Caucasians. While the story about the altercation does tie into the larger discussion of family and her contentious relationship with them - undoubtedly important to her play - and shows off Sasha's fiery nature, I would think her educational experience would also have an impact in shaping her identity. If the discussion of the altercation would have been tied in better with what follows (getting back to the transitions problem), I may have felt slightly more positive about the attention it receives within her piece.
In any case, there's good to be found in this performance piece and seeds of ideas that could make for something that's even better. I wish Ms. Sinclair the best if she chooses to work on it further.
Running Time: 1 hour.
This review covers the July 23, 2014 performance of "Self Portrait" presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. For tickets to the final performance of the show at 10:00 PM on Saturday, July 26 at the Gearbox - 1021 7 Street, NW in Washington, DC - consult the show page on the Capital Fringe website.
Graphic: Courtesy of Capital Fringe website.