Basic Training: An interview with Kahlil Ashanti

09 Jul 2006

“There’s some words that I think people aren’t used to hearing. Words that we in the Black community don’t particularly care for. But I thought, I owe it to the audience to tell them what really happened and let them be the judge of how they want to perceive it. I think people need to know that there’s just as much racism among our people as there is outside of our people. The first person who ever called me a nigger was my step-dad. I felt it was my responsibility to tell the truth … what you don’t want to get into is try to please everybody because you’ll never get anywhere.”

- Kahlil Ashanti

These words from author and performer from a dynamic one-man show now being featured at the Diesel Playhouse, called Basic Training, summarise the sometimes heart-wrenching experiences which Kahlil Ashanti recounts on stage.

Speaking to AfroTornto.com recently, Ashanti admits that he was first apprehensive about exposing the harsh abuse he endured growing up from his step-dad. But, as he puts it, “There’s some hard moments but you want to be able to leave theatre, or wherever you are, thinking ... I got my money’s worth.”

A worthwhile time the show indeed is. In Basic Training, Kahlil Ahsanti recounts the true story of his years growing up under the oppressive shadow of his step-father whom, for many years, he thought was his real father. It was by trying to get away from him that he finally learns the truth from his mother. Shortly before leaving home to join the Air Force, his mother casually mentions that the father-figure who had been such a tormenting symbol in his life isn’t in fact his real father.

As Kahlil Ashanti recounts, a major reason why he chose to join the Air Force was because his step-father had tried and failed to pass the required entrance tests and had to instead join the army. Like many young African-Americans in his situation, university was not an option. The young Kahlil joined the Air Force with the wish to become an architect. But he soon realized that the recruiters lied to him as he found himself becoming the mailman at his base. Refusing to let his spirit be defeated, Kahlil decided to make use of his performing skills to join the talent show on the base. Eventually, he had the great honour of becoming part of the elite U.S. Air Force entertainment troop known as Tops in Blue.

For 4 years, Ashanti toured the world performing to thousands of troops in over two-dozen countries along with a tightly knit group of Tops in Blue comrades. Certainly, the most entertaining part of the show is to witness the amazing talent of Kahlil Ashanti in playing a mind-boggling range of characters spanning those Tops in Blue comrades to his family members and others he encounters throughout his tremendous journey of courage, hardship, show, and ultimate redemption as he is finally reunited with his real father. Ashanti credits Richard Pryor and the legendary voice behind the Looney Toons characters, Mel Blanc, as major inspirations for his versatility on stage.

Ashanti succeeds in getting the audience involved in his interactive show. As he acknowledges, “when you’re performing in front of audiences, they demand something better and in a way the audience help write the show as much as I did because they wanted to know more.”