Ashella is the story of Cinderella, African style. I am a huge fan of the classic story, but this African update is quite entertaining. For those of you from outer space, who don’t know the Cinderella story, I’ll give you the African version: Ashella (played by Narsha Cummings) lives with her evil stepmother (Maxine Osbourne) and two stepsisters (Ashani Roberts as Tima and Moremi Vassall as Sada).
They make her their slave.
One day, Prince Jola (Aquil Roberts) decides to have a feast to choose his bride. Every female in the village is invited to go. Ashella’s stepsisters and stepmother keep her from going. But her fairy godmother, Niumi, Ashante goddess of West Africa (portrayed by the play’s director, Patricia Roberts), shows up and creates a beautiful outfit for Ashella to wear to the feast. When Ashella gets to the feast, she dances for the prince and he falls in love with her. But the godmother’s spell runs out at midnight, and Ashella rushes off, leaving the prince alone. The next day, the prince goes to Ashella’s village, looking for his chosen bride, and finds her.
“I wrote Ashella because I wanted to raise self-esteem for children about the princes and princesses of Africa,” Patricia Roberts said.
As for the play, Ashella was imagined as a result of a 1991 Essence article by a mother worried about her daughter, who no longer wanted to be black. Roberts, who lives in Miami Shores, has achieved her goal. She has made this black girl even more proud of her heritage, and has given her hope that black women can be portrayed in a positive light.
The performance took place Dec. 27 at the Joseph Caleb Center Auditorium in Liberty City. I felt a little hoodwinked the night I reviewed the Kwanzaa play. I wasn’t, nor was any one of the other audience members, informed that the performance would be preceded by a Kwanzaa pageant.
I don’t want to knock children, but the pageant was a little painful. The only saving graces of that part of the show were emcee Zarifa M. El (she flailed with flair), elected Kwanzaa Prince Tarre Stanley Jr. (he played Amazing Grace on his saxophone like a pro), and elected Kwanzaa Princess Mikelle Gayle (she read a killer Christmas poem that she obviously wrote from the heart). Other than that, I could have done without the pageant.
Ashella is a great update of the original classic. The Disney version that came out years ago was interesting to me. Now that I have seen
Ashella, the Disney version doesn’t hold a candle to it. Roberts wrote Ashella, because, in her opinion, Disney never addressed African kings and queens appropriately. I would like to congratulate her on a job well done.
Roberts’ direction is decent. Considering that she’s done this play annually for 15 years, I’m inclined to think that she knows what she’s doing. Roberts, as an actress, is pretty good, too.
But Cummings’ performance as Ashella left me wanting her to tone it down. Her Ashella is too meek for my taste. The only time the character comes alive is when she dances. The actress seems to lack the life and verve to be Ashella, though. I know Ashella is supposed to be humble, like Cinderella, but that was too humble.
Aquil Roberts did a fine job, though, as Prince Jola. His performance was subtle and decent. Other actors of note are Shay Vassall as the Royal Announcer. He forgot his lines once, but he was still engaging.
Speaking of engaging, Roberts went to the audience to get more dancers for the play, which had a live drum band, by the way. The principal dancers were Jeri Beaucaire as Princess Azeema (she is a really good belly dancer), Deja Morris as Princess Kinay (she had the cutest performance), Sheila McCray as Princess Nzinga (she really knows how to work a spear), and Iyo Bli Gore as Princess Afua (she’s a lady, she doesn’t dance). Each woman brought a lot of life to the show.
It was exciting to see beautiful, vibrant women dancing on a stage. Each one carried herself like the black queen she is, and they all had the biggest smiles on their faces. This is a side of black women that rarely gets portrayed in any work of art. We’re usually angry, have an attitude, or are sex symbols for men to look at. The positive energy of the show didn’t stop with the dancers, though.
The drummers were a nice touch, too. I felt like I was really in Africa. We need more shows like this on the stage. Speaking of such, Roberts has two other Afrocentric plays: Matilda’s Voyage (a take on the Wizard of Oz) and Magic Rings (set in Timbuktu).
I asked Roberts if she would consider adapting Ashella for Disney. She said she had thought about sending it to Disney, but she would rather have support from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. If I may, I would suggest a Broadway debut. If Aida and The Lion King can do so well, why can’t Ashella?
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Actress Narsha Cummings plays Ashella.