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

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."