If we were transported back to the heady days of the Black Renaissance, we may have seen Ajene Washington in the cast of a Langston Hughes play or directing a Zora Neale Hurston play or building the set for a Jessie Fauset play or heard his mellow percussion accompanying the poet Claude McKay at one of A’Leila Walker’s Salon readings.
Fortunately, Ajene Washington is with us today practicing his multi-talented artistic skills which he learned from academia and working in various theatrical venues. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech and Drama from Lincoln University and a Master’s of Arts Degree from Northern Illinois University. He has honed his theatrical and musical skills in Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York where he presently resides. Ajene is an excellent example of an artist who has utilized his academic theater training with his various on-the-job theater experiences. These are edited excerpts from our conversation in a Harlem restaurant.
Roger: You were born and raised in Kansas City, known for its rich Jazz tradition. How did the city influence your career in theater?
Ajene: My mother listened to Jazz. She had a collection. I started playing chess. The chess instructor was also into Jazz and then in college I met other students who were into Jazz and it seemed that people into Jazz were also into theater. In high school I had an assignment to write a commercial and a classmate read it. He had a great voice like an actor’s voice. Then I joined Karn’s Children Theater Summer Program. I was 15 or 16. My first role was a soldier in Lady and the Tiger. My 6th grade teacher saw me playing a pirate with a hook when I was 16 or 17. Said she was so proud of me.
Roger: You began acting with the Children’s Theater. Talk about your introduction to the other aspects of performing arts.
Ajene: In high school, I started learning sound, did lights. At Lincoln University, I continued to act. I had a part in The Blacks. My minor was art and painting. In my senior year, I did the set for a production of Macbeth. In grad school I asked some white students for assistance. Got no response. Decided to do the set myself. Learned from finding a way of doing. In undergrad, I heard some students who were from Chicago playing the drums and Michael, a student, taught me. In grad school, I started directing.
Roger: Besides Kansas City, you lived in Chicago, New York and Atlanta. How has living in those various cities influenced you as an artist?
Ajene: Each city has its own vibration and pull. You can utilize the different energy in your art. With Performance Art I have learned more in New York.
Roger: Which aspect of theater do you enjoy doing the most?
Ajene: Enjoy it all. Acting, directing… I enjoy it all. It all makes the world a better place.
Roger: What artists have inspired you the most?
Ajene: Phillip Hayes Dean (playwright), James Baldwin (author), Etheridge Knight (poet), Bob Kaufman (poet), Mbembe Milton Smith (poet). I’m a child of the Black Arts Movement. I consider myself a cultural worker.
Roger: You just returned from Los Angeles and Albany, New York where you had stage readings of your plays (A Shadow In Time—The Road Theater Company, Los Angeles and Three Mothers—Capital Rep, Albany, New York). What are the advantages and disadvantages of having readings and mounted stage productions outside of New York?
Ajene: New York actors and L.A. actors are different. Theater requires a different kind of sensibility than film. A veteran actor once told me, “New York actors work on the internal as opposed to L.A. actors doing pushups.” In New York the caliber of actors is far superior and you have a larger selection of actors in New York. Working outside of New York you reach a wider audience. The world is our community.
Roger: You are a talented percussionist and over the years have amassed an interesting collection of percussion instruments. Talk about that facet of your life.
Ajene: Just trying to expand my musical conversation (laughs). I’m a constant student. In elementary school, I took Music Appreciation. My parents didn’t have the money to buy me an instrument. Had music in me trying to get out. Also heard the kalimba in college. Recently saw a brother playing a hand pan drum and I bought one.
Roger: As the Coordinator of Workshops at Woodie King’s New Federal Theater are you seeing more younger people interested in acting and playwriting?
Ajene: If you mean my age, yes (laughs). In the acting workshops there are younger people. In the playwriting workshop, middle age and up.
Roger: What’s the future of theater?
Ajene: As long as there are people here, there will be theater.
Roger: What’s your next project?
Ajene: The Capital Rep in Albany where I recently had a reading of my play, Three Mothers, are mounting a stage production in April 2024. G&S