After growing up in show business as part of Jamaica’s legendary Marley family, actor and aspiring filmmaker Donisha Prendergast is stepping out on her own.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay met with Donisha at VIFF 2020 to discuss her role in Akilla’s Escape, the heavy Jamaican influence on the film, and what it’s like growing up as part of a famous artistic dynasty.
NICHOLAS LAY: Akilla’s Escape is your feature film debut. How did you get involved with the project and the character of Faye?
DONISHA PRENDERGAST: I started acting 17 years go, mainly in short films and other small projects. I’m not sure how Charles [Officer; writer-director] became familiar with my work, but he reached out and asked me to audition. From the moment I stepped into that room to audition and had the chance to meet Charles and Thamela [Mpumlwana; co-star], it felt like home. They were both easy to relate to and it was a simple story that I identified with, particularly the character of Faye as she offered me the opportunity to perform using my accent. Being a Jamaican actor with a heavy accent, this was encouraging as there aren’t usually many roles for me. Faye also shares my image, including my dreadlocks. Often when I’m doing a role they want me to wear a wig or disguise my hair, but with Faye I was able to fully embrace who I am and bring that to the character.
NL: Jamaica’s heritage, politics, and influence are widely traversed in Akilla’s Escape. What drew you to Charles Officer’s exploration of a culture you know so well?
DP: While preparing for the film, I did a lot of research on Jamaican politics in the 1970s and 80s, and I recall the 1976 Smile Jamaica Concert, which my grandfather [Bob Marley] performed at just a few days after he was shot. A few years later he did the One Love Peace Concert, where he brought Jamaica’s rival political leaders [Michael Manley – PNP, and Edward Seaga – JLP] on stage and united their hands above his head while thunder rolled and lightning flashed overhead. It all had a very mystic quality to it, and it brought me to a place of reflection, because so often we do not take the time to delve beneath the political violence to understand the reasons for it and why certain individuals partake. That’s what this film is about: trying to navigate the generational trauma leftover from those times, generational trauma we still feel today because of the political violence that stems from living in a post-colonial society. It was exciting to be part of a project that was seeking to unearth and explore these aspects of Jamaican culture.
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NL: What message do you think the film conveys about Jamaica and the wider world, considering the wild sociopolitical times we find ourselves in?
DP: The film is right on time. The fight the world is going through is not new, it’s been going on for many years, yet the required racial conversations are only now coming to the forefront. I’m thankful that the film is here to help stimulant discussions about broad societal issues such as class, but also more focused ideas like ganja being co-opted by large corporations. For years the integrity of this plant has suffered at the hands of Babylon, but now Babylon is the one packaging it, selling it, and deciding its future. This is important in a historical context, as after slavery ganja was the first way that the black man in Jamaica was able to make money, when they farmed and sold it to the newly arrived Indian indentured labourers. There are also subtle conversations about Rastafari in the film, including its deep, decades-long ties to ganja, which are rare to see on screen and which I found very empowering. Ganja plays a central role not only in Rastafari culture, but in the lives of Africans living in the diaspora, like Akilla. Having spent their lives being disproportionally locked up for it, they are now faced with the frankly crazy idea of helping corporations take a hold of it. I’m looking forward to the film coming back to Jamaica and will be there to promote it if I can. I want to see how people respond to it politically, especially the badman, the gunmen; because it’s their story too.
NL: You star opposite the multi-talented Saul Williams and up-and-comer Thamela Mpumlwana. What was the vibe on set and what was your experience like working with them?
DP: I have to give kudos to Charles because he provided us with a genuine film industry experience. The film had a proper budget and was produced to a high standard, which I wasn’t used to having come from really low budget projects. Saul and Thamela were both professional and very humble, and are simply awesome at what they do. To play alongside them was humbling for me, especially as I was coming from small screen and stage productions. Though I’d met Saul briefly a few months prior, the first time I really met him was on set with no rehearsal time. That was new for me, but we just clicked and were able to play off each other. I found my character easily while working with him and Thamela, and it was a beautiful environment to channel the story Charles had written. Saul tried to stay in character during filming, so unfortunately we didn’t see him rhyme, but we got to know each other well off camera and shared our space as two creative artists. He’s an eclectic character and I enjoyed the soundtrack he put together, which summed up how much of a passion project this was for all involved.
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NL: You come from a legendary dynasty of performers, most notably your grandfather Bob Marley. What was it like growing up in that family and how has it influenced you as a artist?
DP: I didn’t understand that my family was famous until my early teens. To me they were just my family! From then my summers were very different to my friends’; they went to summer school while I went on tour with Ziggy & The Melody Makers. I became conscious that art can have a global impact because I saw how reggae music moved people of all different colours and nationalities, and I was always tuned in to the idea that the truth needs to be shared through art. My grandfather was and is very popular, but I always make the point to discuss my grandmother [Rita Marley], as she remained in his place and laid the path for the rest of us to follow. My grandfather died in ’81 and I was born in ’84, so I never knew him, but my grandma lived up to his dreams and aspirations with her work and activism in Africa. That’s the route I believe my grandfather would have taken had he lived; a more political direction. There was so much more about him in this world than music.
When I became a performer I knew that I wasn’t going to sing. I sing a little, but that’s not what I wanted considering its history within my family. I still utilised the stage, but did so to channel stories through my voice, and I found that to be my greatest strength. The roles I take now are still informed by that perspective and I will not take a role simply for entertainment, because what I do lasts forever, and as the eldest grandchild it is always in my mind that we have a legacy to uphold in my family. Many of my cousins are coming up behind me and they are looking to me, so I’m here to set an example of how to be independent and establish a path outside the Marley brand, while remaining aligned with the Marley legacy.
NL: You’ve been both in front of and behind the camera during your career so far. Is that the direction you want to follow?
DP: Acting is definitely my first love, but I purposefully stepped behind the camera because I realised the importance of writing the story. And that’s in the r-i-g-h-t sense as well as w-r-i-t-e, which cannot always be achieved when you’re handed a script that does not match your vision. My grandma challenged me to take on another aspect of myself because the world demanded it, but I also want to remain in front of the camera because my image is important and the story of the Rasta woman has not yet been told. I want to be part of that conversation and share my perspective as a writer, director, and actor. I am who I am, and I want to be as creative as I can.
NL: Do you have any projects on the horizon?
DP: I’m working on a couple of projects at the moment. A few years ago some friends and I were in the states checking out our rental space and a neighbour called the police on us. They responded with eight police cars and a helicopter, which was ridiculous. It was my first time witnessing and understanding what black people in America go through, which was alien to me as we do not have these sorts of interactions with the police in Jamaica. I realised that more of these conversations need to happen on film, so one of my projects focuses on the generational impact of the racial divide in the US stemming from segregation, such as the fact that black people drown disproportionally because pools were segregated, so they did not learn to swim and never had that knowledge to pass on. Another project looks at Jamaica and specifically the space called Pinnacle, where the Rastafari movement was born. A few years ago I led a campaign against the Jamaican government called Occupy Pinnacle, in an effort to preserve that story. I’m currently writing a feature about the history of Pinnacle and what its destruction at the hands of the government led to, because without it there may have been no mass exodus of Rastafari, no formation of Trench Town, and no Bob Marley.
NL: Cheers, Donisha.