More than most performers, Kahlil Ashanti acts with his eyes. Those huge, flashing, saucer-sized orbs are an emotional world in themselves, registering rage, indignation and heartache. Ashanti unveils his life story in a world premiere one-man play at the 2nd Stage Theatre. He brings vitality to material that ranges from fiery to overly familiar, maintaining the crowd-pleasing charisma that drew raves from 1997-2000 at Caesar’s Palace. This confident magnetism will clearly work in film when he makes his inevitable motion picture debut.
Singled out and promoted by producer Barry Josephson (“Men in Black”), Ashanti handles 24 parts and makes them all distinctive. The earliest, most absorbing scenes show him coping with a vicious father. Discovering that “the guy who was abusing my family for 17 years wasn’t my real dad,” he sets out to find the father he’s never known. Along the way, he endures Air Force basic training and has to suffer ego-crushing epithets from his sergeant. Ashanti portrays the tyrant with enough fanatical fervor to make us forget how often we’ve seen this character before.
Under Nick DeGruccio’s imaginative guidance, inventive scenes follow after Ashanti is selected as one of the members of Tops In Blue, an all-active duty Air Force special unit made up of talented amateur performers. Tops In Blue gave Ashanti a chance to perform in over 40 countries, and his musical and comic moves, spotlighting dashes of R&B, jazz and hip hop, are on exciting display here. Ashanti’s physical fluidity is so flexible that it feels as though dozens of body parts are operating independently. He’s particularly amusing on the George Michael/Wham tune, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.”
Ashanti’s relationships with eccentric Air Force buddies have a ring of truth, because he spoofs their traits affectionately. This quality of humanity sets him apart from many other mechanical, anything-for-a-laugh comedians. Director DeGruccio is fully aware of his star’s wide range, and movingly shapes a sequence where Ashanti meets Kirsten, a seven-year-old girl dying of cancer. There’s no trace of false sentimentality in their dialogue, and Ashanti’s conviction prompts us to totally accept that the two relate.
The writing during comedy portions of the show feels episodic and doesn’t always measure up to Ashanti’s gifts, and the ending is a bit abrupt. Some unifying thread, a defining schtick, could be incorporated to give this versatile dynamo his specific image.
No such difficulty exists in the serious scenes. Ashanti knows how to write honest dramatic confrontations, and the full extent of his versatility is revealed when he finally tells off his brutal stepdad and reaches out, with touching, tentative hope, toward his long-lost father.