Basic Training @ Barrow Street Theatre, New York

performed and directed by
Kahlil Ashanti
The one-person show is a tricky genre. Many have tried and failed. Others have caused a sensation (Mario Cantone’s Laugh Whore, Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays). Still more (like the recent The Year of Magical Thinking, penned by Joan Didion) have fallen somewhere in between. Happily, Kahlil Ashanti’s one-man show Basic Training is mostly a success.

Based on a true story, Basic Training chronicles a turbulent period in writer-director-performer Ashanti’s life. As the show begins, he’s about to leave for basic training for the U.S. Air Force. His mother gives him a book of poetry with a name he doesn’t recognize, then tells him it’s the name of his father, whom he’s never met.

Once he’s in the Air Force, he auditions for the military entertainment troupe Tops in Blue and tours with them around the world. Despite his successes, however, he’s haunted by the absence of his father. When he returns home, he’s greeted violently by his abusive stepfather while the discovery of his familial roots looms overhead.

Though the show is sometimes lopsided (an inordinate amount of time is given to the talent show portion of the proceedings), Ashanti’s charismatic performance is winning. His energy level can be measured by the patches of sweat that mark his tank top by the end of the hour-and-ten-minute performance. And on top of his physical prowess (he spends much of his time on-stage marching, doing push-ups, and running in place), he’s also excellent at capturing a range of characters.

Ashanti is an extremely likable presence – smart, boldly observant, and funny. For certain of his characters, his eyes seem to bug out of their sockets with anxiety. He’s not afraid to use his body and vocal mannerisms in his performance. When he’s taking on his mother and his flamboyant Tops in Blue coordinator, Louis, his bustling energy inverts and he’s quieter, more thoughtful. But he’s equally skillful in portraying his bullheaded stepfather, allowing his gait to expand and fill with rage as he twists his hands by his sides with pent-up anxiety.

By the end of the show, we feel we’ve gotten to know a good number of people – his mother, his stepfather, Louis, his conspiracy theorist uncle Tony, and a host of others, each well-defined in a short amount of time. Ashanti is able to play out an entire three-person fight scene merely by shifting his physical demeanor; it’s no easy task, and he brings a sense of drama to what can sometimes feel like a static genre.

With only the sparest of sets, consisting of a square of fabric hung behind the bare stage (Josh Zangan is billed as scenic consultant), Ashanti’s only prop is a chair that he manipulates throughout the show. Shifts in mood are marked by a shift in the lighting, by Tyler Micoleau. With the focus placed solely on him, Kahlil Ashanti carries his well-crafted one-man show all the way through its final, optimistic moments.

Ashanti proves that a guy and a chair can move an audience as effectively – possibly even more so – than a number of bigger, bulkier, emptier-headed shows. To that, I say, “Bravo!”

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