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Oatman and Ashley are ‘crazy’ for Community Theater

Kevin Chill Heard | 4/30/2014, 1:43 p.m.
“This is a piece where Ashley is the only person I thought of"
Ashley Aquilla stars as Nina in "Straight Yellow Jacket."

By KEVIN CHILL HEARD

Managing Editor

@houseofchill

The venue is the New African Theater at the Garden Valley Neighborhood House and award-winning playwright Michael Oatman is in his element. Here Oatman is free to exercise his theatrical muse to his heart’s content unfettered by politics and ego, and this month’s muse is a one-woman play starring Ashley Aquilla in “Straight Yellow Jacket.”

“This is a piece where Ashley is the only person I thought of [to build this production around],” said Oatman, who is proudly directing the piece written by one of his former students.

“Straight Yellow Jacket,” by Minneapolis playwright Maxie Rockymore is being produced in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month in May. The play follows the plight of Nina, an up-and-coming African American fashion designer, who finds herself trapped inside the mental health system. Nina is forced to confront her demons, her crumbling relationship with her mother, failed past relationships, and ultimately herself. The play is described as an emotional sojourn into the recesses of the human mind dealing issues of low self-esteem, sexual assault, domestic abuse and racism.

Entrusting the very demanding roll of Nina to Aquilla was something that Oatman has full confidence about. “This the kind of piece that not every actor can do. It’s a lot of stuff. A lot of highs, a lot of lows. There’s humor in this, but she also has to make you cry. Not a lot of actors have that kind of range,” stated the director.

Oatman felt that casting for this role in Cleveland the list of potential performers for a piece like this was “pretty darn short.”

In addition to an amazing list of stage roles under her belt over the last two years, Aquilla is the executive director of a healthcare agency.

Oatman beams, “She is intimately acquainted with the issues of care giving and what it takes to maintain people with various mental space. She’s done the research. She’s lived that experience in her professional life. So it was the perfect marriage between actor and the material.”

In speaking with the woman who was chosen to bring this one-woman-play to life, Ashley Aquilla talked about being selected for the role of Nina.

“I was nervous and excited all at the same time [about being asked to play Nina],” exclaims Aquilla, who says she was up for the challenge. “It’s really intimate working with one person,” she went on to say. “I had to break the piece down and make everything very relevant and really connect to the words. Now I feel eager to perform this, eager to experience this and live it. I definitely feel it’s a moment that I’m living, not just acting.”

According to Aquilla, Nina is a woman in her 30s that’s been in and out of psychiatric facilities. Aquilla adds, “But all of her issues are very real, they are normal. She’s been in a few bad relationships, she has serious body images as a heavier woman. She has difficult interactions with her mother, which a lot of us women can relate to. She’s striving to be successful. She’s a college graduate with no purpose, which a lot of us can relate to. So she has very real issues and also mental illness to top it off. She’s battling – That’s Nina.”