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When Three's Company: Camille Davis, Sakina Deer and Sharee Elise on Their Adventures in Theatre
In what seems to be an act of theatrical serendipity three of Jamaica’s most celebrated young actresses, Camille Davis, Sakina Deer and Sharee Elise all stepped on to the Jamaican commercial stage in 2004-2005. They came from different directions, but over the past few years all three have become staples of the rollicking comedies coming from Jambiz International.
Susumba caught up with the three women on the cusp of the opening of their new comedy, The Baby Scam by Patrick Brown. When we enter the CenterStage Theatre in New Kingston, the set is already in place, and a placard declares ‘3 Days to Go’ clearly counting down to the play’s Friday, July 24, opening.
The conversation reveals the easy camaraderie of women who have worked together for years. As they speak they occasionally finish each others sentences and are soon swapping anecdotes about their adventures in theatre. Interestingly, their rise in the ranks has highlighted a marked shift in Jambiz productions, which in the earlier days had more male than female performers.
“I think what unites us is the passion for the work and the commitment to the work,” Elise explains says, with contribution from Davis, and quick agreement from Deer. “There’s mutual respect for the work and the stage and ourselves.”
Of the three, Davis is most decidedly a product of Jambiz. She came to the stage via the Centerstage Theatre Workshop, before which she had no theatrical experience.
“The first time I saw a script was when I auditioned here,” Davis admits. She got her debut in 2004 with Woody’s Last Stand. Interestingly, she alternated with Elise, who was also making her commercial theatre debut.
Both Elise and Deer entered the stage via musical theatre, yet from different sides of the spectrum. Elise had been a longstanding member of Ashe which meant she had more experience singing and dancing than acting, while Deer had performed with first Father HoLung and Friends and later the JMTC.
“The transition was a huge jump,” Sharee reveals. “Woody’s Last Stand was my first taste of acting. It was on the job training, and it still is.”
Deer’s entry into the commercial landscape also presented a dramatic shift as she moved from playing ‘Dorothy’ the epitome of wholesomeness JMTC’s rendition of The Wiz, to being a downtown sketel in Basil Dawkins’ Uptown Bangarang. Deer worked with Basil Dawkins Productions for three years getting her first taste of work with Jambiz in 2007 with Diana. She returned to the company for the 2012 revival of Glass Slippaz (previously named Cindy-Reliesha and the DJ Prince).
“Going from The Wiz to where I am now was a journey,” Deer said. “To be honest, these roles are more challenging than Dorothy (The Wiz) so I find them more interesting.”
Ladies of the Night was the first time all three of them shared a stage. The three women express great admiration for the company they currently work with, highlighting that they have enjoyed the scripts and even the demands placed on them by directors Trevor Nairne and Patrick Brown.
They also admit that working with Jambiz is a taxing business. The company’s success in staging a full roster of plays each year means they are almost constantly working.
“For me the work is so much, you can’t even think of anything else,” Elise admits.
“We’re like zombies right now,” Davis adds with a laugh.
Yet though they speak of the hardwork, it is evident they are not complaining and there is much they like about working with the successful company. Deer highlights that cast and crew show a commendable work ethic while Elise points out that she appreciates the company's sense of integrity and commitment.
“I appreciate the work and the process,” Elise says. “It’s a step by step building of character,” she continues, explaining that this process gives her the opportunity to develop a role.
Yet this same that same process can prove daunting.
“As much as I respect the rehearsal process, that’s the hardest part for me,” Deer reveals, pointing out that this is particularly true when she is unable to get to the heart of a role. Interestingly, she explains that her Actor Boy Award-winning role as Etta in If There’s A Will There’s A Wife, was the result of a harrowing rehearsal process.
“There were days that I hollered over that role but the more I cried is the more cussing I get, because tears don’t help in a situation like that,” Deer revealed. “I lift my hat to Camille everyday,” she says. “Some people have a natural gift for comedy while other people have to work at it.”
And where Deer found Etta to be her most challenging character, she identifies Wendy in Funny Kind of Love as her favourite role because it was so emotionally challenging.
“After you finish you tired,” Deer said. Indeed, all three found the intensity of Funny Kind of Love, one of the few Jambiz productions which deal with death, emotionally taxing. Deer and Davis explained that they had to find ways to detox from the emotion so as not to take it home with them.
“I had to stay in the car for half hour to not take it inside to my child,” Deer says.
“I just had to go in and lie down and eat some ice cream and cake,” Elise reveals. “I never eat so much ice cream and cake in my life.”
Davis explained that the constant crying left her tired, puffy eyed and with people asking her what was wrong. Explaining that she too spent extended periods in the parking lot to detox before going home to her daughter, she identifies her character in the play, Jo, as her most challenging role to date.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” she reveals.
For Davis, Juicy in Ladies of the Night came at the opposite end of the spectrum as one of the characters she most enjoyed playing, and where she found herself upping her game.
“I don’t know if it was because it was my first role post pregnancy. I think I really kind of mixed up the pot with that character,” Davis says. “My daughter really had an impact on me. Everything changed about me. I think it impacted on my work ethic, how I researched, everything. It made everything deeper, more meaningful.”
Elise explains that she too has found ways to channel the personal into the professional, a lesson she learned with one of her most memorable roles, that of Princess in Easy Street.
“That was the first connection I had with a character,” Elise reveals. “I was going through a whole lot personally and I think it helped me channel. It’s interesting that real life helps you put more passion into your character. Life has had a lot of struggle and because of that I have realized that you can use that to push your character.”
“Pain can become purpose,” Davis adds with a knowing laugh.
It is a theory that Deer readily agrees with, explaining that it is critical to take the personal and use it to create stronger more passionate characters.
“When you have distractions in your life you have to ball it up and fling it into your work,” Deer says.
With just over a decade of performances under their belts, these three women see themselves as constantly learning and striving for greater challenges.
“I’ve grown here. There’s been so much transition in my life itself here. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and the business,” Davis says of her time with Jambiz. “I embrace it. There’s a lot I’ve learned and am still learning.”
Elise also highlights growth, as one of the greatest benefits of her tenure in theatre.
“The personal growth is so tremendous. You try to separate yourself from the characters you play and in doing that you grow,” Elise says.
The three share stories of their onstage mishaps from wayward wigs to falling on stage and getting bruises that they only notice days later, forgotten lines and especially their audiences, whom they have come to realize are passionate about the productions, and are unafraid of hurling insults at characters they don’t like.
“For me, our audiences help because if you realize they’re so invested in the show it makes you more invested,” Elise says.
For Sakina, the demanding audiences are a reason to constantly strive to do better.
“Jamaican audiences are fickle. They will drop you if they don’t get the quality they are looking for so the onus is on you to keep getting better,” Deer says. “You can always be better. You never stop growing. If at any point you get so complacent that you think you know it all then this is not the place for you.”