Deborah Asante, founder of the Asante Children’s Theatre, wears black boots and a purple suede jacket. She faces you squarely, bright-eyed and direct. She talks about how it was nine years ago, when the Asante Children’s Theatre was struggling to find its legs. There were performances when there were more people on stage that in the audience.
“It was very hard. I’d find myself a place backstage and cry because of the effort that went into it. There’s a lesson I’m trying to impart: If you work hard, you can achieve excellence. If you love this, go out and take chances, do it well. The effort was there, but not the audience.”
Building a public following for theater made and performed by young people is not easy. Adults find it hard to believe that art produced by kids will genuinely excite or entertain them. “We don’t have high expectations for kids,” observes Asante. But creating — and rewarding — high expectations is what the Asante Children’s Theatre is about.
“I recognize that even when you’re young, there is a creative spirit that is strong and powerful,” says Asante. “We don’t normally give children the opportunity for serious effort.”
Hundreds of kids have participated in Asante Children’s Theatre productions. Some have been involved for either or nine years. This sustained engagement has enabled Asante to see the impact that arts activity can have. “I stress that they will come to depend on and love each other. That they’re making friendships that are probably going to last a lifetime.”
These relationships are built within ACT’s home at Christamore House in Haughville. Although institutions as prestigious as the Children’s Museum have offered ACT a home, Asante believes her project derives strength and character from its inner-city base. “It’;s not so much about reaching out as building from within. One of the big plusses of our company is that we are in Haughville. We are in the ‘hood. We are in the community and even though all our kids don’t come from Haughville, they come to Haughville which gives them another perspective… To have theater by your people in your neighborhood is the ultimate. It builds the community.
Process is a crucial part of every ACT production, whether it’s the historically based Civil Wrongs by Crystal Rhodes, about the American Civil Rights movement, or a special adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Africa. This process starts with script readings. The kids read and talk about the play, the characters and the issues being raised. These readings are backed up with research. “I’m trying to get the kids to rely on their experience and knowledge. I try to make it important enough for them to feel they need to know this.”
Asante leads by example. Her commitment to the creation of work that can stand on its own two feet — and to the kids that make it happen with her — is total. “I always let them know their work has power because, standing on that stage, they have the ability and opportunity to change somebody’s life. The kids can believe what I say because I have consistently done what I’ve said I’d do. They can trust it. So often I see other professionals make a commitment to kids and then they say, ‘Well, I can’t make it today.’ It’s not important: That’s the message they send. I ask for a commitment and I give a commitment in return.”
Currently, Asante is planning ACT’s first tour to New York City, where the company will perform in Harlem. Her eyes catch a certain light: I think that art involves love. Art is loving the task. If you love the task it becomes art because you love to do it. I tell the kids, when people see that you love it, they get a joy. We so often guard ourselves about love because it can be painful when you’re loving a person. But when you love a task, the task gives you what you put in. If you let that love come out, you open up and sometimes if you really get into it, you become fearless,. If you are fearless and loving: WOW!