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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

From Harvard To Hollywood...(And Back Again)

By Brendan H. Gibbon, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

It's hard to know exactly when Derrick N. Ashong '97 began implementing his plan to make it big in the entertainment industry.

Ostensibly, his career will begin Dec. 12, when the world will see him in Steven Spielberg's film "Amistad." Ashong plays Buakey, an African slave who takes part in a 19th century rebellion while on a Cuban ship crossing the Atlantic. The leading role is Ashong's first professional acting job.

But to talk with Ashong is to believe that somehow, in some way, this big break--having a role most professional actors would die for--is all simply part of a plan that has been going on right from the beginning.

"I have a very clear idea of how I'm going to break into the business," he says, "I've started implementing it already."

Perhaps Ashong's plan began in high school when he started writing music and stories. Or perhaps it was in college, where he composed music for Kuumba, acted for Black CAST (not to mention serving as president of the Black Students Association and running track). Perhaps it was the semester he spent in Ghana putting his own musical together. Or perhaps his big first step will be his upcoming Afro-American Studies senior thesis, a musical entitled "Songs We Can't Sing," that he is putting on in January.

"Amistad," ironically, seems only to be one more step in the plan; it has strengthened rather than satisfied his determination. Immediately after he finished shooting the move in May, he went out to Los Angeles and spent the summer making contacts and thinking about new ways to approach his musical. He is doing just about everything but resting on the laurels of his upcoming film: his new project seems to consume him, drawing all his attention and excitement.

"I go to sleep thinking about it, wake up thinking about it," he says as he writes lyrics and discusses the play with friend and cast member, James Shelton '98. Shelton listens quietly to his friend talk, a little reticent and visibly reluctant about the prospect of putting on Ashong's play in so short of a time.

"I'm glad to see it finally unfolding, I'm just seeing all the work we have to do," Shelton says. "I'll be smiling when the curtain goes up."

Ashong, on the other hand, is animated, dramatic and full of nervous energy when he talks about the play, which focuses on "issues of identity for Africans and African-Americans." He gives mock announcements and reviews of the musical and imitates crowd noise to play up the excitement.

For most of the past few weeks he's been holed up in his off-campus apartment, working at his computer and keyboard on one of the main numbers in the musical, "Sweat." His excitement seems almost too great to be contained in a tiny room all day.

When asked about the song he's working on, he turns up the music and sings it in full:

Sweat / You could make a preacher regret / He ever donned a Catholic vest / And make him run for a ring and a diamond, he croons.

It's hard to believe that a soon-to-be movie star would give so much energy to a senior thesis. But being in "Amistad" has both humbled and encouraged Ashong, made him focus on his current project even as it has whet his appetite for the future.

Sure, he knows there will soon be more than a few people who will start to recognize him around town. (Especially after the world has seen him on the big screen wearing nothing but a loin cloth.) But Ashong definitively resists the label of "movie star," and not just because he's modest.

"People ask me, 'what's it like to be a movie star?' Actually working with movie stars lets me know that I'm not one," he says matter-of-factly.

And if there's one thing he's learned from professional actors, it is that show business is "very iffy" and requires a lot of patience, drive and luck. "I'm not really putting my eggs in that basket--I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Still, Ashong says the "Amistad" experience has made him more confident in his decision to pursue a career in the arts, especially when so many people he knew seemed to ending up travelling the tried and true career paths.

"[Being in 'Amistad'] made the arts seem real," he says. "At Harvard, investment banking, law and medicine are real: but this shows you it's respectable to be artistic, it's admirable to be artistic. You can do this for a living."

For the first time in his life, he says, he was excited to be working all the time, even though that meant three "physically taxing" months, working as often as six days a week, 15 hours a day.

Ashong says that when he tells people he wants to be a professional actor, the first thing they say is, "You wasted how much money to come to Harvard?" Still, he points out there is a surprising number of graduates working in the professional arts, and he was lucky enough to find some Harvard contacts who could help.

W.E.B. Dubois Professor of Humanities Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. first helped Ashong by referring him to Cinque Henderson '94, who happened to be a development executive at Dreamworks. Henderson later brought Ashong to Spielberg's attention.

Ashong says if he makes it in Hollywood he too wants to be an important contact and resource for Harvard undergraduates interested in the arts.

Actually, it would be fair to say that Ashong has already brought a little of Hollywood back to Harvard. He says his movie experience has added a lot to his thesis and has made him even more driven.

Watching actors like Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey and working closely with producer Debbie Allen made him realize how much little things matter.

"Watching the way they work gave me ideas on how to elicit emotions from the actors and audience," he says. He describes in detail the subtlety needed to act in a movie, since the camera picks up everything, and the way that can translate into acting in theater.

"In theater you usually have to be larger than life," he says. "But the same subtlety [of film] can be utilized within theater. It's the magic of saying something without saying a word."

He says this subtlety is something he especially would like to use in his musical because it focuses on "issues of identity for Africans and African-Americans that are not easily identified."

"It's about holding back and still giving forth," he says.

On the other hand, Ashong seems to be too much in awe of Spielberg to even make comparisons or understand his genius.

"He'll throw something at you that you won't expect--he's so creative--he's knows what effect his choices will have on the audience," Ashong says.

And what's it like to go from a big budget Spielberg production to, well, the arts at Harvard?

The comparison is unfair. Ashong describes some of his Hollywood experiences in disbeleif--like going to the Dreamworks studio and meeting Spielberg for the first time, and seeing executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and Arsenio Hall strolling through.

"It was so overwhelming, I was like, they're really going to send me home."

He also can't ignore what enormous amounts of money can do for a production. For example, when they needed a building, he recounts, they simply went ahead and built one inside the stage.

Still, in many ways, Ashong has more at stake in his musical, which he hopes will be his "crowning artistic achievement."

"We don't really have a budget, but for me it's equally rewarding [as the film], he says. "It's an exhibition of all my different skills, a hard copy of my work."

The musical is a more personal project for Ashong, one that stems from his own experience growing up in Africa and the United States. He hesitates to describe it as autobiography, but says "there's something of me in each and every one of [the characters]."

The story focuses on two half-brothers growing up in the United States, one of whom is African and the other African-American. Ashong says he chose a musical because during his Fall 1995 semester in Ghana, he realized how fundamental oral literature and music were to African identity.

And on the plus side, Ashong certainly seems to be happy that he is not stuck in the library doing research but is combining a number of different interests.

"If I was doing a strict academic project I'd be doing music stuff on the side, but now things that I'd be doing anyway are furthering my academic goals as well," he says.

And how will the critics here (that is, the thesis evaluators) react?

"Normally I don't care what anybody thinks," says Ashong. "But you kind of have to care about the critics here. I really hope they like it, but I'm not writing it for them."

And what does the future hold? Ashong wants to go to Los Angeles after he finishes his last semester here, meet with some of the contacts he made last spring and possibly begin turning his musical into a screenplay.

It's all part of the master plan.

Ashong's musical "Songs We Can't Sing" will be playing at the Lowell Lecture Hall on Jan. 9, 10 and 29.Courtesy of DreamworksSCREEN SHOT: DERRICK N. ASHONG (center) appears in a scene from Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie "Amistad"

For most of the past few weeks he's been holed up in his off-campus apartment, working at his computer and keyboard on one of the main numbers in the musical, "Sweat." His excitement seems almost too great to be contained in a tiny room all day.

When asked about the song he's working on, he turns up the music and sings it in full:

Sweat / You could make a preacher regret / He ever donned a Catholic vest / And make him run for a ring and a diamond, he croons.

It's hard to believe that a soon-to-be movie star would give so much energy to a senior thesis. But being in "Amistad" has both humbled and encouraged Ashong, made him focus on his current project even as it has whet his appetite for the future.

Sure, he knows there will soon be more than a few people who will start to recognize him around town. (Especially after the world has seen him on the big screen wearing nothing but a loin cloth.) But Ashong definitively resists the label of "movie star," and not just because he's modest.

"People ask me, 'what's it like to be a movie star?' Actually working with movie stars lets me know that I'm not one," he says matter-of-factly.

And if there's one thing he's learned from professional actors, it is that show business is "very iffy" and requires a lot of patience, drive and luck. "I'm not really putting my eggs in that basket--I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Still, Ashong says the "Amistad" experience has made him more confident in his decision to pursue a career in the arts, especially when so many people he knew seemed to ending up travelling the tried and true career paths.

"[Being in 'Amistad'] made the arts seem real," he says. "At Harvard, investment banking, law and medicine are real: but this shows you it's respectable to be artistic, it's admirable to be artistic. You can do this for a living."

For the first time in his life, he says, he was excited to be working all the time, even though that meant three "physically taxing" months, working as often as six days a week, 15 hours a day.

Ashong says that when he tells people he wants to be a professional actor, the first thing they say is, "You wasted how much money to come to Harvard?" Still, he points out there is a surprising number of graduates working in the professional arts, and he was lucky enough to find some Harvard contacts who could help.

W.E.B. Dubois Professor of Humanities Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. first helped Ashong by referring him to Cinque Henderson '94, who happened to be a development executive at Dreamworks. Henderson later brought Ashong to Spielberg's attention.

Ashong says if he makes it in Hollywood he too wants to be an important contact and resource for Harvard undergraduates interested in the arts.

Actually, it would be fair to say that Ashong has already brought a little of Hollywood back to Harvard. He says his movie experience has added a lot to his thesis and has made him even more driven.

Watching actors like Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey and working closely with producer Debbie Allen made him realize how much little things matter.

"Watching the way they work gave me ideas on how to elicit emotions from the actors and audience," he says. He describes in detail the subtlety needed to act in a movie, since the camera picks up everything, and the way that can translate into acting in theater.

"In theater you usually have to be larger than life," he says. "But the same subtlety [of film] can be utilized within theater. It's the magic of saying something without saying a word."

He says this subtlety is something he especially would like to use in his musical because it focuses on "issues of identity for Africans and African-Americans that are not easily identified."

"It's about holding back and still giving forth," he says.

On the other hand, Ashong seems to be too much in awe of Spielberg to even make comparisons or understand his genius.

"He'll throw something at you that you won't expect--he's so creative--he's knows what effect his choices will have on the audience," Ashong says.

And what's it like to go from a big budget Spielberg production to, well, the arts at Harvard?

The comparison is unfair. Ashong describes some of his Hollywood experiences in disbeleif--like going to the Dreamworks studio and meeting Spielberg for the first time, and seeing executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and Arsenio Hall strolling through.

"It was so overwhelming, I was like, they're really going to send me home."

He also can't ignore what enormous amounts of money can do for a production. For example, when they needed a building, he recounts, they simply went ahead and built one inside the stage.

Still, in many ways, Ashong has more at stake in his musical, which he hopes will be his "crowning artistic achievement."

"We don't really have a budget, but for me it's equally rewarding [as the film], he says. "It's an exhibition of all my different skills, a hard copy of my work."

The musical is a more personal project for Ashong, one that stems from his own experience growing up in Africa and the United States. He hesitates to describe it as autobiography, but says "there's something of me in each and every one of [the characters]."

The story focuses on two half-brothers growing up in the United States, one of whom is African and the other African-American. Ashong says he chose a musical because during his Fall 1995 semester in Ghana, he realized how fundamental oral literature and music were to African identity.

And on the plus side, Ashong certainly seems to be happy that he is not stuck in the library doing research but is combining a number of different interests.

"If I was doing a strict academic project I'd be doing music stuff on the side, but now things that I'd be doing anyway are furthering my academic goals as well," he says.

And how will the critics here (that is, the thesis evaluators) react?

"Normally I don't care what anybody thinks," says Ashong. "But you kind of have to care about the critics here. I really hope they like it, but I'm not writing it for them."

And what does the future hold? Ashong wants to go to Los Angeles after he finishes his last semester here, meet with some of the contacts he made last spring and possibly begin turning his musical into a screenplay.

It's all part of the master plan.

Ashong's musical "Songs We Can't Sing" will be playing at the Lowell Lecture Hall on Jan. 9, 10 and 29.Courtesy of DreamworksSCREEN SHOT: DERRICK N. ASHONG (center) appears in a scene from Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie "Amistad"

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