Asheville Fringe Arts Festival returns for its 18th year

FROM NEAR AND FAR: This year's Asheville Fringe Arts Festival features more than 40 acts from nine states, as well as Mexico. Photos courtesy of Asheville Fringe Arts Festival

In his 1951 book Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung contemplated the shadow — a term he used to describe any unconscious aspect of a person’s identity. “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort,” Jung wrote. “To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

Nearly 70 years after its publication, performer Christian Prins Coen is bringing Jung’s shadow theory to stage during the 18th annual Asheville Fringe Arts Festival with his solo dramatic production, Abomination: Memoir of Ambiguity.

The work explores Prins Coen’s life as a biracial, first-generation American who identifies as genderqueer. “It is an immersion into my personal psyche,” says the artist, examining the ways homophobia and racism have shaped his public persona. “As you grow, you start to put pieces of yourself away that are unwanted by your society and you basically hide them, and eventually they end up creating your shadow.”

Abomination: Memoir of Ambiguity is one of more than 40 local and national acts scheduled for this year’s Asheville Fringe. The four-day ticketed portion of the festival runs Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 23-26, with additional parties and free events taking place now through Sunday, Jan. 26 (for a complete list, see sidebars).

BREAKING THE MOLD: In his solo production, Asheville Fringe return performer Christian Prins Coen will explore the ways his identity has been shaped by others and steps he has taken to reclaim his true self. Photo courtesy of Prins Coen

Prins Coen debuted at last year’s Asheville Fringe with Café Negro, a production that combined comedy with hip-hop.

“We definitely got a lot of flack,” says the artist, who worked alongside fellow creatives Melvin Penn and Nazeer Artaud. “We got chewed out for using the N-word by somebody. They told us they found it offensive. They were white. … I was like, ‘It’s not your thing.’” The three also received criticism for their frequent use of the term “bitch” throughout the rap portion of their performance.

Despite Asheville’s adverse reaction to the production, Prins Coen says he has since taken the show on the road, performing it throughout the country to more receptive audiences.

In his forthcoming solo dramatic production, the performer is taking a different approach. “When I’m doing stand-up, I’m telling the story,” he explains. “But when I’m doing theater, I become the story.” In the latter, continues Prins Coen, “you’re essentially exposing your emotional vulnerabilities.”

Though elements of comedy will appear in the 45-minute production, the story will unfold primarily through free-form poetry and prose. Throughout the production, says Prins Coen, he’ll go back and forth between his true self and “a tactfully cultivated shadow version of myself.”

Prins Coen, who divides his time between Asheville and Brooklyn, N.Y., represents the broad range of local and national talents that will converge on the city throughout the four-day festival. Of the 48 acts scheduled for this year’s event, 31 are local. The remaining 17 are coming from the likes of California, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Mexico.

“This year is about the most diverse range of performers and artists I think we’ve ever had,” says Asheville Fringe co-founder Jim Julien. “We’re running the gamut of geographical diversity and personal diversity.”

On top of that, adds festival director Katie Jones, about 120 acts submitted applications. “We just about had enough where we could have done two festivals.”

Julien attributes the festival’s growing popularity among regional and national artists to its consistency and longevity. After 18 years, he says, “people have gotten used to the idea that we are here and we aren’t going away.”

At this year’s Asheville Fringe, Julien hopes audiences “will have an opportunity to see something that they didn’t know existed,” he says. “That’s the thing I’m always hoping for — that audiences are just kind of amazed by the breadth of the human experience in performance.”

Jones adds, “It’s all about the ephemeral nature of these performances, which is one of the things that makes Asheville Asheville.”

But, equally important, notes Prins Coen, are the messages conveyed in each performance. With respect to Abomination: Memoir of Ambiguity, “I really want people to walk away from it realizing that whether their actions are out of kindness or not, what people do often determines the identity someone presents to them,” he says.

“There’s an undercurrent, I believe, in Asheville, of a competitive queerness or a competitive liberalness,” he continues. “And I think that poisons the water of what people are trying to do. … I think people are lost in the passion of it — this competitiveness that you’re not queer enough or you’re not liberal enough. And I think it isolates a lot of people, especially people like me, from the actual community.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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