FLATBUSH – Growing up as the daughter of immigrants in Flatbush, Ashley August hid her dreams of being a performer from her parents using the duffle bag she carried her high school volleyball uniform in.
“My parents are immigrants and there’s only about three things that were ok for me to do,” said August, who will be one of the featured performers at the Word. Sound. Power. show scheduled this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “You’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an educator.”
“Nothing really fit,” August said. “But it was always like, ‘I would love to play a doctor on TV.’ That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an actor.” Her parents knew she was playing on the school volleyball team, so August took the opportunity to pursue her passion. “Every day I would leave the house with my duffle bag going to volleyball practice after school. But after our season ended in October, I was actually going to a non-profit that gave free classes to young people who were interested in the arts,” she said.
That led to August’s role in an off-Broadway show and fueled her desire to find a way to make the performing arts a viable career. “In high school, everyone was talking about college. I realized that my family did not have money to send me,” said August. “I knew I wanted to be an artist, so how do I combine the two? I googled ‘scholarship for performers’ and what came up was a mixed poetry slam sponsored by Urban Word.”
That Google search launched August’s entry into the spoken word movement in 2009. She qualified as a finalist in the Urban Word Grand Slam, became a New York City Poet Laureate, and was selected by the New York Times for the 30 Under 30 Most Influential list.
Her early success has reconciled August’s parents to her career choice that was hard for them to understand at first. “Doing something you love and supporting yourself is a foreign idea to foreigners, to the people who came here and took whatever jobs were offered. It was a very different idea for them to see that,” she said. “But they are into it and they are proud now. They’re not just tolerant of it—they’re actually behind it.”
She has been busy with acting roles, including an appearance on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, but she returns to her roots in rap and poetry for BAM’s annual celebration of those arts, which focuses this year on female voices.
The three-day event (April 13, 14, and 18) also features Brandi “Cipherella” Stephney, LATASHA, and the California hip-hop dancer and rapper Medusa. They will be joined by the winners of a student competition, and the series also includes a beatbox workshop and panel discussion.
“The lines are definitely blurred for me when it comes to rap and spoken word,” August said. “I started out writing rap as a kid. Once I got to college, I was in an all-women spoken word rap group. We were three friends at school: one was a rapper, one was a poet, and I was in between.”
Spoken word is special, August said, because of “the way that it intersects different mediums. It has rhythm and rhyme so it sounds like rap and it could be identified with that. It also tells a story, so it could be identified as a monologue. And it can be political, so it could be identified as a speech. But it has all three of these elements that are brought together that makes it unique and very relatable.”
Working as an actor, August explored the difference between performing her own work and taking on a character in a play or television role. “There are some commonalities,” she said. “but there’s a different kind of work you do when the lines that are given to you are written by someone else. You have to investigate the work and find out: Who is this character, where did they grow up, what do they know well, who is their best friend? Ask questions that are specific to this person that you do not know because you didn’t create them and you didn’t live as them.”
August’s appearance on Orange is the New Black was a one-off, but she’ll be returning to the screen in another Netflix role. She can’t share the details of that project yet, but she will also be appearing on the HBO series The Deuce.
She’s currently working on a book inspired by her own experience as a young actor trying to win roles.
“I am working on creating a book of monologues for young people of color,” August said. “Specifically for young people who are looking to apply to conservatory programs. The instruction is always to bring in what best describes you. But when I was looking for material, I didn’t find any that sounded like me. So I am working on that, to highlight the other that we don’t hear from often.”
Word. Sound. Power. 2018 is directed and hosted by Baba Israel and takes place in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space at 321 Ashland Place. Tickets for the 7:30pm shows on April 13, 14 and 18 are available online.