JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
Kahlil Ashanti, a former senior airman who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1992-96, has one message he hopes Airmen will heed.
“You’re more than your rank, and we’ve all had things or been through things that we’re possibly ashamed of,” said Ashanti, a former Tops in Blue member who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. “It’s in parts of our stories that haven’t been reconciled where we can find true connection. That’s what you contribute to today’s Air Force. The diversity of backgrounds that has made America and the Air Force what it is. It’s time for Airmen to step out from the shadows, trust your story in today’s Air Force, because we need you more than ever.”
Ashanti will perform “Basic Training,” his award-winning autobiographical one-man show Jan. 28 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio.
“Basic Training” combines breakdancing, comedy and storytelling that details Ashanti’s time in the Air Force and overcoming an abusive childhood. He has performed the show since 2004 and earned accolades such as winning the Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest performing arts festival in the world, to a Broadway Drama League Nomination during his run on Broadway.
“The story is funny, moving and inspiring, key elements that audiences are looking for,” said Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was an investor during Ashanti’s Broadway run. “He’s a great actor with a very compelling story.”
And Ashanti is returning to San Antonio, where his compelling story began.
“The way the Air Force shaped me as a man, Airman and a performer was immeasurable,” he said. “I feel like Tops in Blue in the Air Force was one of the greatest gifts. Were it not for the Air Force, I certainly wouldn’t have an award-winning show that has sold out around the world and be the father of three beautiful boys and have a wonderful wife. My outlook on life would’ve been very different.”
A light in darkness
Ashanti grew up as a self-described U.S. Army brat. He was born in Landstuhl, Germany, on Nov. 3, 1973, and spent a significant portion of his childhood in Japan before his father, Maurice, was assigned to the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. Ashanti and his family relocated to Davenport, Iowa, in 1984.
Ashanti’s father regularly abused him and his brother, subjecting them to beatings and punishments such as standing at attention overnight with a belt across their feet. If they cried or showed weakness, he woke up and beat the boys again.
It was in those dark moments Ashanti, then 11, discovered his talent for performing.
“If you stand at attention for a very long time, your spine starts to feel like it’s compressing, and it’s very painful,” Ashanti said. “I started doing impressions of my stepdad to make my little brother laugh, quietly though, just to keep him from waking anybody up. Looking at my little brother laugh, and realizing something that I have done gave us an escape from our situation for a split-second. It gave me a sense of self-worth.
“For my mother, after things would get violent and abusive around the house, I would make her laugh,” Ashanti added. “For some reason, I knew how to tap into people’s pain and let them laugh at it.”
Ashanti looked to Eddie Murphy as a role model and gravitated toward community theater and open mic nights. He graduated from North High School in 1992 and enlisted in the Air Force.
“It was the only escape that I had,” Ashanti said. “Partially, my mom had told me that Maurice had tried to join the Air Force and couldn’t get in. So he joined the Army. I had wanted to show him that I was following him. I wanted to make him proud and not make him think I was stupid or useless. I took the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test, and got in on the third try.”
But the reaction he hoped for was the opposite and life shattering, which forms the opening scene of “Basic Training.”
“I always vowed when I left for basic training, I looked my mom in the eye and said ‘I’m never coming back. You’re never going to see me again. I’m done,’” he said.
A life changer
While stationed at his first base, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Ashanti saw a notice that Tops in Blue was having a talent show at the community center to find members of the troupe. He remembered his recruiter telling him about the troupe, and mentioned the opportunity to his supervisor.
“She tells me, ‘No, you’re an airman basic. Study your stuff, make rank and then you can do that kind of stuff. But you’re an Airman first.’ I was like ‘OK,’ ” Ashanti said. “She said, ‘You’re probably not good enough anyway. Tops in Blue is like the Navy SEALs of entertainment. Nobody gets in.”
Ashanti went to the community center a week later, performed a stand-up comedy routine for the director and was admitted to the talent show.
“The funny thing was when I first tried out, I wasn’t very good,” Ashanti said. “I got to see the level of talent there. In a nutshell, what Tops in Blue did for me was it reminded me I have a responsibility to give more in everything that I do because they wouldn’t settle for less than 100 percent.”
He advanced to the command level competition at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and the worldwide competition at nearby Eglin AFB. He placed second in the 1992 worldwide talent contest, but he wasn’t selected for Tops in Blue.
“I had a pity party,” Ashanti said. “I get back to my base, and I’m talking to a friend of mine who toured with Tops in Blue previously. He said, ‘The Air Force doesn’t owe you anything. Work hard and be a good Airman.’ What Tops in Blue reminded me was that the world doesn’t owe you a thing and that it takes sacrifice to be the best at anything.”
Ashanti tried again and won the worldwide talent competition in 1993. He was selected to tour with Tops in Blue as a comedian in 1994 and 1995, experiences that changed his life.
“When I joined the Air Force, it gave me a second chance,” he said. “That really began to reveal itself when I began to tour with Tops in Blue because performing is about 2 percent of what you do. The rest is contributing – you’re unloading trucks, you’re loading trucks, you’re speaking with dignitaries, you’re representing the Air Force in places where people might have an opinion of the United States that’s not great. You’re showing them what we’re about as a country.
“It also reminded me of the importance of the mission,” he added. “With Tops in Blue, we had a specific mission – family entertaining family. But that began to broaden. We did so much humanitarian work that never got covered.”
Ashanti’s readiness and resiliency also caught the eye of former Tops in Blue touring director James Walker, a retired master sergeant who lives in San Antonio.
“He was not only a cast member for Tops in Blue; he was one of the people you could depend on and trust,” said Walker, who plans on seeing Ashanti perform Jan. 28. “That’s something you don’t get from everybody, even from the performers in Tops in Blue. You needed a job done, you went to Kahlil because he was one of those people you could depend on.”
Ashanti’s experience with Tops in Blue also ignited an entrepreneurial fire he took back to his duty station as an information management specialist.
“I spent the better part (touring with Tops in Blue) working 21-hour days, and that’s no exaggeration,” he said. “It gave me this entrepreneurial spirit to do what I could to make my work station better and contribute to the mission of the Air Force in ways that I didn’t think were possible because the Air Force had trusted me with the image of the Air Force around the world. I took that to heart and brought that to my base.”
Another life changer
After being honorably discharged from the Air Force in June 1996, Ashanti performed a magic show in Japanese at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for three years.
In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. He was working three jobs, going on auditions and struggling to make ends meet when his life changed again.
He enrolled in an acting class taught by noted actor Jeffrey Tambor at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2002. That class served as the spark for “Basic Training.”
“You could do a monologue, which was basically your audition,” Ashanti said. “I’m on stage, and I’m doing the same comedy routine I did in Tops in Blue. Jeffrey stops me and says, ‘OK, you can leave.’ I tell him, ‘What do you mean? Everybody’s laughing. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?’
“He says, ‘Yeah, you’ll get a gig. You’re a talented guy. But if you want a career, you’re going to have to get back on stage and tell me why we should care why you’re telling this story.’ ”
Ashanti got on stage and poured his heart out to Tambor and the audience.
“The night before I left for basic training, my mom revealed that the guy who was abusing me my whole life WAS NOT my real dad,” he said. “She swears she told me before, then says, ‘I probably just forgot.’
“Jeffrey says, ‘If you tell that story, you will have a career in this business. Because once you understand your story, agents will come looking for you because you have something unique, something that no one else can tell. I want you to make this into something that is painful. The best theater is when you feel you shouldn’t be watching. The audience is going to respond to your authenticity.’ He was right. That’s how it all started, and it’s been a roller-coaster ever since.”
It took Ashanti about a year to write and refine “Basic Training,” originally titled “My One Time To Be Me,” based on a quote by Maya Angelou. Success came slowly at first, and crowds were sparse at a studio he rented for a week.
But one audience member who was impressed was Doug Atchison, a screenwriter and director.
Atchison introduced Ashanti to prominent Hollywood producer Barry Josephson, and Ashanti performed a VIP show at Josephson’s house for some of the most powerful people in entertainment.
The show impressed Josephson so much a film project was planned. But the Hollywood writer’s strike in 2007 nixed those plans, and Ashanti took his show to Edinburgh.
“I was determined not to let the writer’s strike take the wind out of my sails,” Ashanti said. “Now, the show ends up selling out and winning the Fringe Award, and it gave me this worldwide profile that made it to Broadway and performing in London.”
Ashanti’s success has been hard-earned and hard-won, which doesn’t surprise T.A. Burrows, a retired master sergeant who was one of the Tops in Blue directors when Ashanti was touring.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Kahlil would be a success as an entertainer and a person,” said Burrows, who is an executive producer of Act II productions in Phoenix. “He is the epitome of a professional entertainer and a professional person. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
For more information on Kahlil Ashanti, click here.
Editor’s Note: The Air Force cancelled the Tops in Blue program in 2016 but continues to build on its entertainment showcase for Airmen through the Air Force Services Activity. To find out more about available entertainment programs, visit www.myairforcelife.com.