Kahlil Ashanti of BASIC TRAINING: Laughter in Service
Most soldiers go off to war to defend their country with guns... Kahlil Ashanti defended with his humor.
"As a member of the U.S. Air Force’s elite troupe Tops In Blue, Kahlil served his country in Iraq by entertaining the troops on the front-line. Often hysterical and many times dangerous (a performance in Turkey when their bus was held up at gunpoint) Ashanti knows true fear... but nothing was quite as scary as turning his focus back home to face the childhood he tried to forget," describe press notes, "From the grueling drill sergeant to his gay best friend in the armed forces to his abusive stepfather, Ashanti story gives a fresh perspective to a life in the military."
Winner of the 2004 Montreal and Vancouver Fringe Festivals and the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival Spirit of the Fringe and Scotsman Fringe First Award, Basic Training had its premiere in October 2004 in Los Angeles.
BroadwayWorld enjoyed an opportunity to chat with Kahlil Ashanti about his hilarious and eye-opening one-man show, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre…
Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations on a hilarious performance! How was your Opening Night?
Kahlil Ashanti: It was amazing – my mom was there. There were even some people from Tops in Blue in the front row, who loved it. Another night there was a person in the audience from Tops in Blue of 1957! Some people who have toured with Tops in Blue have seen it and say: “Finally!” because they’ve been waiting for somebody to tell their story. It’s surprising to them, sometimes, to see the civilian-world reacting to the show, because the military is very-much an insular world.
Eugene: Calling Basic Training a one-man-show is almost an understatement, because you play 23 remarkably different characters. How did it come upon you to put all of these wild creatures into one story?
Kahlil: It’s been amazing. I was taking an acting class with Jeffrey Tambor – and because I didn’t really know anyone else in class, who were all picking plays and working together – I thought “Gosh, what if I just did it myself?” It started snowballing. Originally I just wanted to tell a story about me in Tops in Blue. Some people found it interesting that my job in the Air Force was to entertain troops in the war-zone. I kept thinking: “Instead of me having to teach a fellow actor how to play this real-life role… I can do it!”
Eugene: When did you realize you had a knack for making people laugh?
Kahlil: I started making people laugh when my little brother and I, who were being abused – my step-dad would have us stand at attention in the dark. If we cried, we would get beaten. He laid a belt across our feet, so if we moved, the belt would move, he’d wake-up and beat us. My little brother would start to cry… to keep him from crying, I would do impressions of my stepdad. Seeing him laugh made him feel better. Same with my mom: she’d be doing the dishes and sobbing. I would start doing impressions of my stepdad “What’s wrong with you woman?” and she would start to laugh.
Eugene: What a bitter-sweet way to realize that you can bring warmth to people. But not just warmth… but awards from across the globe! How has this show developed from then to now?
Kahlil: Slowly! Originally when I wrote the show, the stepfather story was not in it. It was just a few antidotes of me in Tops in Blue. But then my fellow-actors asked: “Why did you join the Air Force?” And I answered: “To get away from my stepdad.” So the show evolved from me answering tough questions, and working and working…
Eugene: And your first audience…
Kahlil: I held my first staged-reading of Basic Training in May 2003. I was working 4 jobs, living out of my truck, I rented a theatre space, and had to try! I had been working on it in class for a year; I wasn’t going to “class” it to death. I wanted to get it up in front of an audience, learn from them, and bring it back to class. When I staged it, Doug Atchison (who wrote Akeelah and the Bee) saw the show. A year later he introduced me to Barry Josephson, who had me perform the show in his mansion living-room! Meanwhile, I had been saving-up for the Fringe festivals in Canada. With Barry’s help, it all came-together, and I sold-out in Montreal!
Eugene: Your biography puts you all over the map. Where did you grow-up?
Kahlil: I was born in Germany and lived there until I was 3. Then we moved to Japan and I lived there until I was 10. Then we moved to Davenport, Iowa and lived there until I was 18. After Iowa, I joined the Air Force and was stationed in Las Vegas.
Eugene: I was surprised I hadn’t heard of Tops in Blue beforehand. My grandfather was in the Air Force and I’m an entertainment freak – so right after seeing your show, I YouTubed the hell out of it. I am so impressed with all of the auditions, rehearsals, staging. How does Tops in Blue work?
Kahlil: Tops in Blue operates similarly to The Thunderbirds, The Navy Seals… Basically, you come into the Air Force and you get a normal job, like jet-engine mechanic. But let’s say you played guitar in high-school? In your off-time, you can audition for the Air Force talent contest. There are 3 different levels of competition. First, you compete at your base. If you win, you go to another level and then you work your way up to world-wide. The world-wide competition is held every year in San Antonio. These are people who are mechanics, medics, postal workers, all active-duty military – and Tops and Blue puts a show together based around the talents of the people who get in that year. It’s quite amazing. If you get a chance, watch the Tops in Blue Documentary on YouTube…
Eugene: I did!
Kahlil: I directed that! You’re your own technical crew. You travel with the same amount of equipment as Justin Timberlake, Garth Brooks… if you see a Tops in Blue show, you’ll see two tractor-trailers full of equipment, their own tour bus, their own generator. It’s a full-on huge gig. Not only do you sing and dance on-stage, but you spend most of your time setting-up and tearing-down in places that really suck! One time, in Panama, it was pouring down rain, and on the roof of the theatre were fire-ants. As we are moving the equipment into the theatre, these fire-ants are going down our shirts, stinging us, and then we had a show!
Eugene: Showmanship and sportsmanship and strength all in one! Tell me about the Tops in Blue show itself…
Kahlil: It’s incredible. It’s non-stop. Like my show, it’s energy energy energy! A musical journey from the Roaring 20s to Today – but it’s performed by people who are serving their country. It’s a world-class performance by the military and for the military.
Eugene: Why is entertainment important to bring to our servicemen and women?
Kahlil: When you join the military, you take an oath that says you’re government property for the next 4 years. There’s a saying: “If they wanted you to have a life or a family, they would issue you one.” When they send you overseas, you have to tell your loved-ones not to expect to ever see you again. You have to say: “Don’t write. Let me write you.” You leave with all of this on your shoulders. There’s no piece of home you can bring with you. Once a year, Tops in Blue comes to visit – and that’s all these kids get. They might get a politician visiting to shake their hands. If they’re lucky, a celebrity might stop by. But it does something different when one of you is up there. The Tops in Blue show always ends with a patriotic set, where the performers will introduce themselves as their position and where they are stationed. It’s a connection. The reason it’s important to bring entertainment to those guys is – if you don’t – they’re going to snap. It’s the only break they get.
Eugene: How has Basic Training turned you into the person you are today?
Kahlil: It’s been a conduit to apply everything I’ve learned. From Tops in Blue – and with the perseverance it took to bring the show to New York – it’s educated me. It’s been one hell of a hard journey and it’s made me appreciative. There’s no magic formula. It’s the same thing I want the people leaving the theatre to be thinking: Everyone has a basic training.
BASIC TRAINING – Now playing the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow St. at 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Christopher Street). Tickets for Basic Training are $35. The performance schedule is as follows: Monday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday at 7:00PM with matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2:00PM. Tickets can be purchased by visiting SmartTix.com or calling 212-868-4444. For more information, please visit BasicTrainingNYC.com