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Ashong Trades Harvard's Yard for Spielberg's Set

DERRICK ASHONG Voorhees, NJ Afro-American Studies Currier House

By Victoria E.M. Cain

It was April when the Amistad docked in Mystic, Connecticut, to unload its captured cargo. It was a blustery 40 degrees, and the West Africans were dressed in rags. Iron neck yokes and chains connected one to another and prevented them from wiping the brine and dirt from their eyes.

The guards pushed them over the gap between dock and plank, then up a narrow staircase. Buakey, the littlest one, stumbled and fell but couldn't rise because his hands were locked together.

The swaying line continued forward, forced on by the guards, and he was dragged along the ground by his neck, still yoked to the man in front of him. He shut his eyes.

And Steven Spielberg yelled cut.

The line of extras stopped moving, the medic rushed over, and Derrick N. Ashong '97 opened his eyes again.

"My jaw hurt, my neck hurt, I was scared stiff," he remembers. "All I could think was that they said cut, they said cut and it was over. But in real life someone could have died that way and no one would have cared."

For once, Ashong is completely serious. It's eerie to see him step out of his role as the comedian into that of the orator.

"I learned to appreciate the physical and spiritual strength of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery and the terrible things they went through," he says.

He leans forward intently. "It was a terrible thing they went through," he repeats. Then eases back in his chair. The focus abates, and he relaxes.

"And man, I was seasick. We were on that boat, huddled together, wearing loincloths. It's tossin' and rockin' and shakin' and there's water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink, and the sun's beating down," he says. His face cracks into a grin, a slice of white in a blue-black oval.

"I just threw up right there in the boat," he says. "When it came time to eat lunch, I just sat there and looked at it. It took me like half and hour to eat a cookie."

He unleashes a big baritone laugh, and half the Currier dining hall turns to look at him. Ashong's laugh is loud and confident and completely unabashed. After his momentary intensity, it's reassuring.

It's peculiar, to take absolutely everything to heart, yet seem to take nothing seriously. This is a guy who pokes his friends and snickers while watching "Braveheart," then proceeds to incorporate the film's moral into his own personal philosophy?

Heavy and light, little and large. That's Derrick Ashong.

He's short, barely 5'8". But he was man enough to date a six-foot tall woman earlier this year. His confidence level probably outweighs him. Last February, he cold-called Skip Gates to ask for contacts in the music industry and then followed up on the names he was given. And on location this spring, clothed in rags and a turban, he went right up to Morgan Freeman and introduced himself.

It's easy to ascribe his buoyancy and aplomb to his recent successes. Even at Harvard, not many kids go from president of the Black Students Association to a lead role in a Spielberg film. But his cocky assurance--and his intensity--have more to do with the fact that Derrick Nana Kwesi Abaka Ashong is Ghanian, royalty at that, and knows well his responsibilities to himself, his family and his community.

Turning on the Charm

People at Harvard were charmed by Ashong even before he won the role of younger brother to the lead of Spielberg's upcoming historical film, "Amistad."

"I noticed Derrick his freshman year, just because of his potential," says Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. "He's tremendously popular."

Ashong's time at Harvard has been full. Along with Kuumba and Black C.A.S.T., he headed the Black Men's Forum, ran track and served as president of the BSA.

His efforts seem to have garnered him both respect and a certain measure of local fame.

At Loker Commons, every young black passerby stops by the booth Ashong occupies to say hello, high-five him, or give him a hug. Ashong has a few white friends, but he is not immune to Harvard's segregated social life.

People are eager to laud his accomplishments. "Derrick did an excellent job addressing the issues facing the black community and he gave his full effort," said current BSA President Luanda M. Williams '99 earlier this year.

"Everybody knows Derrick. Everybody loves Derrick," says ex-girlfriend Kishka K. Ford '97.

Still, he's endearing, not intimidating. Friends call him "a big kid" and say that if his six-man suite in Currier was a family, he'd be the youngest brother.

He's been at Harvard four years, long enough to make friends, even long enough to find a few people outside his family to whom he can really open up, a rare occurrence for the deeply private Ashong.

But his suburban New Jersey high school was a different story. He had two friends and his cousins, who are considered siblings in Ghanian culture, but he could relate to few others.

"I wasn't one to conform, and that was somewhat problematic," he says. "I was new and I was different. I spoke with a different accent and I had a different mentality."

Born in the urban tropics of Accra, Ghana's capital, Ashong moved to the United States when he was three. He lived in Cambridge while his father earned a master's degree at the Harvard School of Public Health and in Brooklyn, in a one-bedroom apartment on Lenox Road, close to Kings County Hospital.

When he was eight, Ashong moved to Saudi Arabia and later on, Qatar, while his parents ran pediatric emergency care centers. There, Ashong went to international schools and spent his days among students who spoke four or five languages. His parents made an effort to expose Ashong and his sister to different cultures, and the family traveled all over the globe, from Canada to Thailand.

The Ashongs were still in Qatar when the Gulf War broke out. Their work prevented them from leaving the country, and the kids spent much of their time in a tiny bedroom with sealed windows and gas masks.

In 1991, with the conclusion of the war, the Ashong family settled in Voorhees, a well-heeled suburb in south New Jersey. The public school he attended there was safe--"It wasn't one of those schools where he had to dodge bullets," his father, Dr. Emmanuel Ashong says with evident relief--but Ashong found that Eastern Senior High had its own traps.

His experiences and his confidence didn't endear him to the Eastern kids. Neither did his color.

Eastern boasts of its diversity and its high college acceptance rates. But between those two stats lies a strict color line. Ashong and his best friend were the only two black students in Advanced Placement courses, and his parents had to argue with the administration to get him into those classes.

"We had some racial issues at our school," Ashong says flatly. "When it came time to go to college, people would tell me, you can't go here, you can't go there. There hadn't ever been a black kid who had gone to Harvard from my school."

Even if high school was "a means to an end," as he says, it did make him into who he is today, renewing his interest in his African roots. It crystallized his interest in Afro-American history and culture, and externally at least, Americanized him.

"I am an African."

At first glance, Ashong appears to be a typical American college student. He wears a black leather jacket and chunky loafers. He loves rap and Prince and "In Living Color." He has pool parties each summer. His accent--long a's and clipped o's--is buried beneath student slang and an Afro-American inflection.

However, Ashong makes it very clear that despite his various travels, he is neither international nor American. Though his earliest memories are of Brooklyn, he is African. His baritone hardens when he says this, as if he's pounding his voice on the table in front of him. "I feel very much more at home in Ghana than in America," he says. "I don't feel like America fully accepts me, but I have somewhere I am better accepted, so why would I want to be an American?"

He catches himself and eases off, slipping from declaration into explanation. "I've been here since I was three years old on and off, so I definitely do have ties to American culture, especially strong ties and affinity to Afro American culture," he says.

But his homeland is one in which he has spent no more than five years of his life, including a junior semester abroad. His values and much of his family are still located in the hills of West Africa.

Ashong's father, Emmanuel, grew up poor in Accra, speaking Ga, Akan, and the King's English. As a third year medical student, he married a young nurse of royal background. Her father was born to become the chief of the Larteh people but declined to be enstooled. Nonetheless, Stella Asiedu-Akrofi Ashong and her family retained the privileges and obligations of Ghanian royalty

"It is a matter of responsibility and leadership among your people. You are expected to live an exemplary life as a result of the privileges which come to you," Dr. Ashong explains.

Ashong's parents were strict about maintaining Ghanian culture in the home, giving their frequently uprooted children a firm sense of self.

The closeness of the family--he still calls his parents Mommy and Daddy, and he is devoted to his younger sister, nicknamed "Sweetie"--made arduous self-discipline into a labor of love.

"I know my peers don't deal with what I have to think about. There are strict codes, but they enable me to be strong in whatever environment I'm in, so I want to respect those things," Ashong says.

These codes require him to govern his behavior and control his actions. He doesn't drink, really, except once with the "Amistad" cast in Newport and once on his twenty-first birthday.

When he pierced his ears last year, gold hoops through small black lobes, his mother cried. Members of the royal family do not mutilate their bodies.

Despite the rigors of these domestic codes, his family is stalwart in their tolerance of other cultures and lifestyles; his father is quick to emphasize that the family has no problem with those who do pierce their ears or whose culture demands they do so. Ashong has the same tendency. When he discusses his deeply held Christian beliefs, he immediately jumps to his respect for Islam. He rarely speaks categorically, except about himself.

This embrace of difference stems from the Ashongs' religious and social commitment to the sanctity of the human being, says Dr. Ashong. "At the end of the day, we find that humanity is one big family, with different characteristics, yes, but the core of the human is the same."

As a result, Ashong is quick to accept others and quick to forgive. And he's forever working on his relationships, pondering how to understand other people better. He's also consistently working on himself. It's a constant battle to live up to his own expectations of manhood.

"It's a passion, a fire...tempered by responsibility. But it's not exclusively a male thing. I want my daughters to have the qualities of strength and pride and kindness," he says. "If they do not, future generations suffer for it," he says.

When he is discussing dignity and honor, he is perfectly still. The words come rushed and easy, as if he thinks of this a lot, but he doesn't talk about it much. It's a radical departure from the language of the kid who "basically talks yang and makes a lot of jokes" when he hangs out.

"I feel like God has a plan for me. I'm here for a reason, and I'm going to do things. I've never felt otherwise," he says.

His convictions can be tough for others. "He's got a path he's chosen and nothing's going to get in the way of that, but sometimes it leaves people behind," says Ford.

Still, Ashong focuses on the world floating ahead of him and has confidence that someday, he will come closer to achieving his celestial standard of manhood.

"I told my parents my senior year in high school that I was going to be incredible, phenomenal. I'm going to be special to you. It's not big headed. It will just happen," he says.

"Ceteris parabis, that's the plan"

The way Ashong's life has unfolded so far, it seems like it just might. Unexpectedly, of course, haphazardly, and at the last minute, in true Ashong style. Getting the role in "Amistad" seemed less destiny than accident, a series of circumstances that collapsed into place.

He never would have known of the opportunity if he hadn't received an e-mail notifying members of collegiate African student associations that Spielberg was seeking young West African males for a film on the 1839 mutiny and subsequent capture of a slave ship, La Amistad.

He never would have auditioned if tryouts had been somewhere other than on his way home to Jersey or some time other than the first day of Christmas break.

He never would have gotten the part had he not contacted Dream-works executive and former Kuumba member Cinque Henderson '94 last spring to discuss his prospects in the music industry.

Still, maybe it was a predestined part of his journey--just a detour that had not been anticipated. He has always wanted to act even though his parents urged him to become a doctor.

"My parents didn't feel like acting was a viable career option. No one in my family was involved in theater, and they thought I needed to get into medicine. Even law was a stretch," recalls Ashong with a smile. "When I was little, though, I wanted to be an actor so bad."

His ability to break the mold doesn't surprise those who know Ashong.

"I'm kind of outside of the mix. I'm a little bit crazier than I should be," he says. "I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-underwear kind of guy." But when he lifts his arms up you see he's wearing Harvard boxers under his baggy jeans. Clearly, the risks he takes are measured ones.

Once he decided he wanted to pursue a career in the arts rather than in the operating room, he went about it diligently. He decided sophomore year that music might be easier for him to break into than film or television, so he began composing for Kuumba and its a capella arm, Brothers. He hooked a keyboard to his computer so he could compose electronically and carried a dictaphone around with him, in case inspiration struck him on the daily trek between the Quad and the Yard.

"He'd always want to show me what he was doing," says Ford. "He'd run to my room to play me a song, or even a chord that he was excited about. Derrick would have a paper due the next day, but instead of working on that, he'd be composing."

He spent a lot of time playing and composing for his singing group, TYRELL--"it's an acronym, but it's a secret what it stands for"--with three of his closest friends, all of whom also wanted to go into music professionally. He worked hard to build up contacts, and once his parents realized he was serious about pursuing music, they retired their dreams of medical school and finally supported his efforts.

"I'm not anal. I'm not one of those unnecessarily organized guys, I'm not obsessive," he says. "Intense but maybe not compulsive, and when I commit to doing something I want to do it well."

His focus can make him tough to be live with. Roommates say Ashong can be high-strung. It also made it difficult for his parents to understand why he would want to make the jump from music to acting last summer after he'd spent so much time composing and playing. In July, when Ashong announced he was thinking about looking for an acting agent, his parents were horrified.

But again, Ashong's shifting interests were deliberate and measured. He had received repeated assurances from Georgetta Banks, an L.A. entertainment insider then at the Kennedy School, that he could really make it as an actor.

"She was like, you, you really need to consider this. At least, don't close the door. So I told her the next time I hear about an audition, I'll go," he shrugged. "So I'm chillin' in my room in December, and I get this e-mail."

His friend Sheldon Reid '97 drove him down to New York for the audition. "I lied to my parents," he says quietly. "They didn't know I was going. I just told them I'd be home from school Saturday night."

"I was really scared. There were all these other actors who were like, 'I'm with SAG [Screen Actors Guild]' and they had these portfolios. I didn't even know what SAG was, and my pictures were these little things my friend took. I was like, 'Wow, I'm dead,'" Ashong remembers. "The only productions I'd ever been in were Black CAST shows at school."

But he's never been one to let a situation faze him, even when Debbie Allen, star of "Fame" and director of "A Different World," was sitting in the audience.

His break came when they asked the line of actors to read in an African language. Ashong was the only one who spoke fluently. "Everyone else was like no, I don't speak, but I have a lot of African friends, and it doesn't matter because I'm an actor. I can insert myself into the role."

For weeks after the audition, Ashong didn't hear from the studio. It didn't really matter, he figured. He'd just go back to school, finish up his thesis, a musical on identity issues facing Africans and Afro-Americans, and graduate.

Then he got a phone call from his father in mid-January. "Hello Derrick, this is Daddy," Ashong recalls, imitating his father's British-Ghanaian accent. "I got a call from this woman about a movie. What the hell is going on?"

"They finally called me and were like, 'Yeah, you made the final cut. By the way, do you have any problems with nudity?' I was like, what?" The rest of the month was a whirlwind. "I was so frazzled, I was spending all my time auditioning. I knew I was going to be so behind."

He read over the script, sent in a tape, talked to the staffing agent in Cambridge, and filled out his study card without having shopped any classes. Most fortuitously, he called up Henderson at Dreamworks the morning after he found out he was probably going to be in the film.

Henderson, a recent Harvard grad who had actually written his thesis on the capture of the Amistad, was working closely with Spielberg on all aspects of the movie. He decided he was going to make sure this Harvard kid got some kind of part in the film.

The short list for the part of Buakey, a younger brother figure to slave rebel leader Joseph Cinque, was solidified before Spielberg even saw Ashong's tape, but the director's top choice for the part fell through at the last minute.

"I pulled out Derrick's tape and showed it to Steven. We flew him out a day later, and everyone was really impressed. He's quite a star. Everyone is sort of in love with him."

And he's in love with them. "Debbie Allen, the consummate professional," and "Steven Spielberg, he's a genius" are oft-repeated phrases for Ashong. Clearly Hollywood hasn't yet blunted his enthusiasm or his unassuming ways. And it hasn't disturbed the still, carefully pronounced pools of thought deep inside his head.

He's heading out to L.A. this summer, probably to sign with the agency Coast-to-Coast. And then its back to Harvard for one more semester to make up the time he missed this spring.

He has confidence that he's going to make it. He wants to come back and host Cultural Rhythms someday. Laughing, he admits he wants to be "a superstar."

So in 10 years, ideally, "my parents will be sitting at home in a lovely house I bought for them, chilling, and my family at home will have everything and anything they want. I'll be married with one kid." He pauses and thinks. "Maybe two," he says definitively. "My wife will be really nice, my sister will be out of college and doing really well and I will be really successful in both the music and the film industry. And I'll have the world as my oyster...ceteris parabis, that's the plan."

And in 10 years, realistically speaking? Derrick doesn't miss a beat. "Same thing." And bam--there's that face-splitting grin again

His focus can make him tough to be live with. Roommates say Ashong can be high-strung. It also made it difficult for his parents to understand why he would want to make the jump from music to acting last summer after he'd spent so much time composing and playing. In July, when Ashong announced he was thinking about looking for an acting agent, his parents were horrified.

But again, Ashong's shifting interests were deliberate and measured. He had received repeated assurances from Georgetta Banks, an L.A. entertainment insider then at the Kennedy School, that he could really make it as an actor.

"She was like, you, you really need to consider this. At least, don't close the door. So I told her the next time I hear about an audition, I'll go," he shrugged. "So I'm chillin' in my room in December, and I get this e-mail."

His friend Sheldon Reid '97 drove him down to New York for the audition. "I lied to my parents," he says quietly. "They didn't know I was going. I just told them I'd be home from school Saturday night."

"I was really scared. There were all these other actors who were like, 'I'm with SAG [Screen Actors Guild]' and they had these portfolios. I didn't even know what SAG was, and my pictures were these little things my friend took. I was like, 'Wow, I'm dead,'" Ashong remembers. "The only productions I'd ever been in were Black CAST shows at school."

But he's never been one to let a situation faze him, even when Debbie Allen, star of "Fame" and director of "A Different World," was sitting in the audience.

His break came when they asked the line of actors to read in an African language. Ashong was the only one who spoke fluently. "Everyone else was like no, I don't speak, but I have a lot of African friends, and it doesn't matter because I'm an actor. I can insert myself into the role."

For weeks after the audition, Ashong didn't hear from the studio. It didn't really matter, he figured. He'd just go back to school, finish up his thesis, a musical on identity issues facing Africans and Afro-Americans, and graduate.

Then he got a phone call from his father in mid-January. "Hello Derrick, this is Daddy," Ashong recalls, imitating his father's British-Ghanaian accent. "I got a call from this woman about a movie. What the hell is going on?"

"They finally called me and were like, 'Yeah, you made the final cut. By the way, do you have any problems with nudity?' I was like, what?" The rest of the month was a whirlwind. "I was so frazzled, I was spending all my time auditioning. I knew I was going to be so behind."

He read over the script, sent in a tape, talked to the staffing agent in Cambridge, and filled out his study card without having shopped any classes. Most fortuitously, he called up Henderson at Dreamworks the morning after he found out he was probably going to be in the film.

Henderson, a recent Harvard grad who had actually written his thesis on the capture of the Amistad, was working closely with Spielberg on all aspects of the movie. He decided he was going to make sure this Harvard kid got some kind of part in the film.

The short list for the part of Buakey, a younger brother figure to slave rebel leader Joseph Cinque, was solidified before Spielberg even saw Ashong's tape, but the director's top choice for the part fell through at the last minute.

"I pulled out Derrick's tape and showed it to Steven. We flew him out a day later, and everyone was really impressed. He's quite a star. Everyone is sort of in love with him."

And he's in love with them. "Debbie Allen, the consummate professional," and "Steven Spielberg, he's a genius" are oft-repeated phrases for Ashong. Clearly Hollywood hasn't yet blunted his enthusiasm or his unassuming ways. And it hasn't disturbed the still, carefully pronounced pools of thought deep inside his head.

He's heading out to L.A. this summer, probably to sign with the agency Coast-to-Coast. And then its back to Harvard for one more semester to make up the time he missed this spring.

He has confidence that he's going to make it. He wants to come back and host Cultural Rhythms someday. Laughing, he admits he wants to be "a superstar."

So in 10 years, ideally, "my parents will be sitting at home in a lovely house I bought for them, chilling, and my family at home will have everything and anything they want. I'll be married with one kid." He pauses and thinks. "Maybe two," he says definitively. "My wife will be really nice, my sister will be out of college and doing really well and I will be really successful in both the music and the film industry. And I'll have the world as my oyster...ceteris parabis, that's the plan."

And in 10 years, realistically speaking? Derrick doesn't miss a beat. "Same thing." And bam--there's that face-splitting grin again

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