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Q&A with Ashlie Atkinson 

On 'Black Klansman,' calling the Hogs and the 'Jon Lovitz principle.'

click to enlarge SHIPWRECKED: A new production at Hendrix College goes up under the direction of Little Rock native Ashlie Atkinson, who appears in Spike Lee's "Black Klansman."
  • SHIPWRECKED: A new production at Hendrix College goes up under the direction of Little Rock native Ashlie Atkinson, who appears in Spike Lee's "Black Klansman."

Before returning to Hendrix College as the Murphy Visiting Theatre Director, Ashlie Atkinson wanted limitations. As the Little Rock-born actress explained during a recent talk in Conway, if she could pick any play from anytime from anywhere to direct with undergraduates, it would become a "huge thing that's impossible to pare down." Dr. Rosemary Henenberg, a former professor and mentor, had stressed this to Atkinson years ago. She'd told the student Atkinson that limitations allow for freedom. Henenberg's advice had been successful so far.

It had also been Henenberg who'd suggested Atkinson move to New York City after graduating from Hendrix in 2001 to join the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. "We've taught you all these things, now go and break all of those rules," is how Atkinson remembers the push.

Now, after a career ranging from sitcoms to Spike Lee films to theatrical performances to being lauded by The New York Times as "just a wonderful actress," Atkinson wanted to bring something back that spoke to all of that — something with New York-weird to it, something about love, something that would connect. With so much in mind, she needed restrictions. So, Atkinson mandated: seven characters or less, fewer than 200 light cues, ensemble cast, queer themes, strong female leads.

It took a while, but after reading 20-plus or so scripts, Atkinson came upon "Wet, or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes," a play (written in verse) about the survivors of a pirate-ship wreck. The play is about identity, kind of. It's about love, too. And it's about how we make assumptions about our identity, even though we don't realize it, and how we have to abandon those assumptions to find a truer version of ourselves.

You talked about limitations with the play. How does that work in your art? How can specificity and limitations, things that might not seem good, actually be helpful?

I mean, as an actor, it is incredibly helpful. I never have to apologize for the individual that I am. I'm never too fat or too low-voiced to play myself. When you go into a casting, you're like: "Well, this is me." And yes, I'm prepared and I did the work before. So, I know what I'm doing when I go in. But, either they want a "me" or they don't want a "me." It's not personal. They're not judging.

I have a thing that I call the "Jon Lovitz principle." Jon Lovitz got put on "Saturday Night Live" because he was standing in front of Lorne Michaels in line for a movie. In that very Jon Lovitz-y voice of his, he was complaining. (And I hope this isn't apocryphal, I hope this is true.) [Lovitz] was complaining about everything about the movie they were about to see: who was in it, who directed it, who wrote it, why he wasn't in it. And Lorne Michaels was just so captivated by this person that he asked him if he was an actor, gave him a card and told him to show up for a thing.

I feel like if you're yourself long enough, then someone's going to need a "you." Once they need a "you," if you show up — and you're professional, and you're fun to be with (like you're fun to work with and you make it an enjoyable experience for everybody) — well, then, representation and visibility begets representation and visibility. I think you can take a couple of those, like "Oh she's the person that we need and we didn't know that we needed," and, in New York at least, you can move that into a career.

How have you talked to the students about being themselves?

A lot of it is about claiming your space. Because these students are savvy. I think college kids are a lot "older" than I was as a college kid. It's less about "know who you are" and more about saying "you are the only you there is. So: take up space, make your voice louder, plant your feet, don't apologize with your body for being here." A lot of it is physical adjustments for them.

You've worked with Spike Lee a few times now, most recently in his new film "Black Klansman." What's he like?

Uh, the best. I love that guy. He's very funny; he has a really great sense of humor. He can be intense, too, but has such a clear view of what he wants.

And it's really nice the level of contextualization he gives, which happens every time. Like, when we did "Inside Man," he gave us this mini film festival on heist flicks. ... For "Black Klansman," which takes place in 1972 in Colorado Springs, he had a woman — a very smart lady — from the Southern Poverty Law Center come in and talk to us about hate groups in America: where they're at now and what they have in common and how now this alt-right white supremacy is potentially a more virulent strain than maybe in the past.

I mean, I know growing up here in Arkansas, the Klan just seemed like idiots. This is from my position of privilege; everything I say is from my position of privilege. But I never thought of them as anyone to actually be afraid of in the '80s. They didn't seem to have any power. They certainly didn't have any political agency, it didn't seem at least. That's changing, quite rapidly. And it was great for Spike to arrange for someone to come in to talk to us about the impact of what we were doing. It was also really helpful because I play the wife of a Klansman. So it was useful to talk about social dynamics. Who are these people? What positions do they occupy in their communities?

Is there a common Arkansas-based conversation you have outside of the state?

Spike Lee makes me call the Hogs every now and again. Like literally a "Woo Pig Sooie."

Spike Lee makes you do "Woo Pig Sooie"?

I mean he doesn't make me. He tells me to. I've haven't been like: "Nooo." I'm like: "Yeah! OK! WOOOOOO —" every time. Which is funny, because that was when Adam Driver was on set and he was like "Oh! My dad! He lives in North Little Rock!" And so we had this whole conversation about it. It's great. You call the Hogs and all the closet Arkansans start coming out. Pretty amazing.

My biggest Arkansas bragging point, which is true, you guys, is that my grandma changed Johnny Cash's diapers.

Really?

My grandparents, before my mom was born, used to live next door to the Cashes in Kingsland. My Aunt Mickie was a peer of Johnny Cash's. When they were babies, Mrs. Cash and my grandmother would trade off taking care of the kids. So my grandma changed Johnny Cash's diaper — like, a lot.

And my mom — [laughs] — I love my Mom. When she talks about it she then talks about how they were driving through Kingsland one time and her mom, my grandmother, wanted to stop and see if Mrs. Cash was around. So they went to the house. And this is just, to me, the most essentially Southern thing ever. My mom says, "So we pulled up and there's a young man — a good looking young man — sitting on the front porch strumming a guitar and singing." And [my grandmother] says, "If you think Johnny Cash could sing — you should hear his cousin." Which is amazing, right? Because it's a name drop and some shade. It's that thing of, "Oh, I know him, but he ain't all that." It's so good. And about Johnny Cash of all people.

Performances of "Wet, or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes," directed by Ashlie Atkinson and written by Lizzy Duffy Adams, are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, Feb. 21-23, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Cabe Theatre of Hendrix College in Conway. Reservations are recommended; call 501-329-6811..


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