October 20, 2012

Speed Killed My Cousin: An Interview with Ashley Wilkerson

Speed Killed My Cousin: A Conversation with Ashley Wilkerson

The Carpetbag Theatre will present Speed Killed My Cousin, a new work written by Linda Parris-Bailey at the New Orleans Fringe Festival from November 20-23, 2013.  A timely and very important work, Speed Killed My Cousin chronicles the story of the first female combat veterans of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and their uneasy return home. With much attention having been placed on the issues being faced by veterans of this conflict, and articles in many of our national news publications have appeared within the past few years that share these issues – particularly those facing female veterans.

Ashley Wilkerson, a Dallas-based actress whom I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending in 2008 at the National Performance Network Annual Meeting, is featured in the role of Debra, whose journey home is the focus of "Speed Killed My Cousin". A Texas native, Ashley holds a degree in Cultural Studies and Media from Eugene Lang College of the New School for Liberal Arts in New York City. Ms. Wilkerson brings a wealth of performing and personal experience to this role: in addition to her numerous regional and national credits Ashley is also the force behind Freckle In My Eye, her award winning one-woman show which tells the story of a young woman on Texas' Death Row. 
Initially commissioned by the South Dallas Cultural Center's Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Project, Freckle In My Eye has been showcased at the National Performance Network Conference and began touring in the summer of 2011 with a highly-acclaimed presentation at Austin's Black Arts Movement (BAM) Festival.

At the end of a week that was full for both of us – my time in Tennessee included performances of Parris-Bailey's Between A Ballad and a Blues and an appearance at the Cumberland County Playhouse while Ashley was deep in rehearsal - Ashley took some time to speak about her involvement in the production of Speed Killed My Cousin and her thoughts on many issues, including mental health.

The idea of 'speed' – running, very fast, to get away from what? When you're speeding, you don't have to face what's in front of you. Sometimes that can be used as a defense mechanism,” Ashley said. “I read the ten-minute version of Speed Killed My Cousin and I absolutely loved it.  It is such a rich story: the language is really beautiful. There's an urgency that I find in the text in relating it to where we are in our society, and I felt like this was a very important story," Ashley said when speaking of Parris-Bailey's work.  "I knew of both Andrea Assaf and Linda Parris-Bailey through having attended the 2008 National Performance Network Annual Meeting, and immediately had the feeling that I would be working with them.” (Incidentally Ms. Assaf, who was also staying in the artists' residence owned by Knoxville's Bread Factory Collective where this interview took place, immediately piped in: “Linda and I said, 'If we could both have any actress we wanted, who would it be – and we both said ASHLEY WILKERSON'.”) 

“As an actress, I feel a responsibility to tell these stories. Linda Parris-Bailey is a brilliant writer and Andrea Assaf is a lovely, lovely director – it's good to be around these fierce women who are committed to the art and the responsibility of being an artist.”

Ever gracious, Ashley expressed thanks to Andrea Assaf for her compliment and continued: “As a Black woman, to find a script that showcases a person who is really layered and multifaceted is definitely a win-win situation, and the character Debra is just kick-ass. She is a strong, fragile, complex, complicated, and wounded survivor. She is a young woman who has recently returned from Iraq, and has a lot of challenges – including suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

When sharing more about the character, Ms. Wilkerson stated that “Debra has come home facing the blood on her own hands – her own conscience. During the play, Debra also deals with the loss of a dear friend – possibly a lover – who was first brutally assaulted by their fellow soldiers and later killed in battle. Upon coming home, Debra finds herself confronting a long-held desire to please her father, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War and also suffering from PTSD. This play – much like the journey to mental wellness through intense and thorough treatment – is complex, layered with many issues.”

In the four years during which Ashley and I have known each other, I have found myself continuously inspired by her philosophies and her perspective on issues that affect all of humanity. Speaking on the topic of mental health, Ashley shares a holistic view: “Not from an actor's standpoint: mental health is very important to me, and I think we need to raise more awareness about it in the African-American community. This play could definitely start a conversation about the effects of war: PTSD is not limited to just soldiers. Whether one is fighting in a war abroad or in a warzone on your block, one's mental health is at risk.”

Ashley is no stranger to tackling complex human issues and situations either as an actress or a human being. Her one-woman show (Freckle In My Eye) tells “the story of a young woman who is serving a death sentence in Texas. It is a fictional story that is based on real-life experiences. This play evolved into something that I could not imagine writing about – and I see pieces of this character inside of all of us, including Debra in Speed. If Shesee, the main character in Freckle who had experienced so many traumatic things in her life, had received adequate mental health care, there's no telling what she could have become. It is paramount that people are given access to care as well as some channel for the pain that is being addressed, be it spirituality, church involvement, or involvement in the arts.”

Although having recently become a member of Alternate ROOTS, Ashley has carried a sense of social responsibility with her throughout her life and career. “There is a call to all of us – what can we do and what are we not doing to assist someone in their healing? We are all responsible for each other,” she said matter-of-factly. “In Freckle, the question is that of how different Shesee's life would have been had her community responded differently. We have to remember, however, that we're dealing with broken people: all across the world. What are we doing with the broken pieces that come back from war?”

With this play being one of great weight - “it's a very heavy script”, she said - Ashley again shared a sense of gratitude when speaking of working with Linda Parris-Bailey and The Carpetbag Theatre “We are all doing our very best to stay as emotionally and emotionally balanced as we can. The Carpetbag Theatre is a very supportive work environment, which helps when you're dealing with something of this weight – it's a very heavy script. The work environment is a very safe space – we do 'check-ins' to really see where we are before we go into this story and give life to these characters.”

I've never had an experience like this, and I appreciate the amount resources that we have,” she continued. “We are going to do some story circles that will involve people who have served in the military, and I have spoken with a woman who takes part in an amputee community in Knoxville.”

The concept of the disintegration of wholeness and loss, including losing a sense of normalcy as well as idealism, is one that affects so many people in many ways. “There are staggering statistics about Vietnam veterans and suicide, and I'm sure that we may see some similarities in coming years,” Ashley said.

As an actress, I feel a responsibility to tell these stories. Linda Parris-Bailey is a brilliant writer and Andrea Assaf is a lovely, lovely director – it's good to be around these fierce women who are committed to the art and the responsibility of being an artist.”

I like to joke and say 'Oh my God – why am I always get these really really hard roles? In my day-to-day life I'm pretty girly, but on stage I'm the tough girl.' In all seriousness, I think of how blessed and honored I am to do be chosen to tell these stories, and hope that I can do them justice. These stories are about real people and the world needs to see real people – these stories need to be told, so that we can all move forward in our healing. Furthermore, I've said this before – if we want to fix a nation, we need to make sure that the women are okay.”

Ashley's thoughts about the health of women and nations have been stated before – one of the many books published by Yogi Bhajan is titled The Destiny of Women is the Destiny of the World. Having seen Ashley Wilkerson on stage and being proud to call her both a friend and colleague, there is no doubt that she will do justice – and more - to this role or any other that requires the level of commitment and selflessness that she brings both to the stage and to her daily life.

Speed Killed My Cousin will be presented at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, New Orleans, as part of this year's New Orleans Fringe Festival.  
 For more information and tickets, please visit www.nofringe.org.

Speed Killed My Cousin is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation Fund Project 
co-commissioned by The Carpetbag Theatre in partnership with Junebug Productions, 
Mason/Rhynes Productions and NPN.  The Creation Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency). For more information: www.npnweb.org. This production is also made possible by funding from Alternate ROOTS and the Ford Foundation through the ROOTS Tour & Residency Program.

For more information on The Carpetbag Theatre, please visit www.carpetbagtheatre.org.

To find out more about Ashley Wilkerson, please visit www.dawnofashley.com.

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