A Theater Nerd’s Love Letter to Austin Dean Ashford
Photo Credit: Andrea Klohn
Heading into my first day as a guest artist for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) Region III conference this week in Madison, WI, I got 4 hours of sleep. My husband and I were on vacation at Disney World and had to be up at 2:30 a.m. to get to our shuttle back to the airport to head out here.
I was exhausted.
But then, I realized that Austin Dean Ashford was the opening performer for KCACTF Region III’s opening night ceremony. Much coffee was had and you better believe I was in that audience trying my best to muster a fraction of Ashford’s infectious energy. He was the opening night performer last year as well and I knew his show would be phenomenal as always.
Ashford flips the one-man show concept on its head. Through ingenious body and voice manipulation, he easily weaves in and out of characters. Mixing in his musical prowess through beatboxing, rapping as well as some ukelele strumming, Ashford is making theater cooler by the minute. Now pursuing his PhD while touring the globe with his shows Black Book and (I)sland T(rap), Ashford is showing us all how much theater can do.
As well as how much it can teach.
I still tell people about seeing Ashford perform at last year’s festival. I’ll definitely be telling more people about seeing him again this year. Even if I can’t chat with him for a few moments at the bar like the last festival, the very least I can do is acknowledge his brilliance in the only other way I know how.
With (I)sland T(rap), Ashford took the tired Odyssey (sorry, not sorry Homer and James Joyce) and created a modern epic search for self. He made it his own. He made it black. Ashford crafted a story about what it’s like to be black in America and the danger that entails. He does something similar in Black Book, but instead of a classic basis, he uses his own story to inform the characters. Both shows make their audiences roar with laughter, shudder in sadness and quake with anger. They resiliently call out to all of us to do better, acknowledge oppression, stamp out white supremacy and stand the hell up for our fellow human beings.
Ashford’s work does exactly what theater is supposed to do--it points out our complacencies and makes us uncomfortable.
There is no doubt in my mind that Ashford will grace the stage or our theater histories alongside folks like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anna Deavere Smith. I’ve always been proud of participating in KCACTF as both a college student and an alumna because the folks who come out of programs associated with the festival never cease to amaze me. As one of those people, Ashford is a beacon of hope in a world full of pain, suffering and sorrow. Theater can be the change we wish to see in the world and I know that with him among our ranks we will persevere and carry on.
As Ashford shows in Black Book, he is a fan of affirmations so I will end with some:
I am the change.
Artists are powerful.
We can make the world better.
Art is love.
I am love.
I am worthy of being an artist.
My work is worthy of the world.
I am strong.
Together we are strong.
Theater will survive.