Kahlil Ashanti plays two dozen characters in his wild trip as part of an Air Force touring show
Kahlil Ashanti packs a lot into his 60-minute one-man show Basic Training, now streaming as part of the Denver Fringe Festival. Equal parts standup, bildungsroman and character exploration, it’s the perfect kind of live show for an online audience. While more complex stage shows don’t fare well with just one or two cameras to record them, a one-man show is easy to film, and with a performance of this caliber, the format becomes less and less important as the story unravels.
With nothing more than a chair and a black curtain behind him, Ashanti races through a few years of his life as a young man who joins the Air Force’s elite entertainment troupe, Tops in Blue, in the early 1990s. We’re treated to characterizations of his appalling crass drill sergeant in basic training all the way up to his honorable discharge after visiting 23 countries as part of the Tops in Blue tour.
In the background is a young man’s earnest desire to know who his real father is, and when he returns home after his tour only to find his mother still with the same abusive stepfather, the newly empowered Ashanti takes action.
We’ve all seen one-man shows where an actor takes on multiple roles, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone master the technique of switching gears as Ashanti does. With abrupt twerks, radically altered facial gestures and, of course, a myriad of different voices and body movements, he bangs from his foul-mouthed drill sergeant and stepfather to the effeminate Tops in Blue leader to his Uncle Tony to his mother and many more. One scene, set in a taxi at the Air Force base, has him zig-zagging between four different characters and then layering another on top.
It’s an astonishing performance that’s shocking in places, funny as hell and, in the end, emotional touching and gratifying.