No Fear: The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival confronts bold ideas

NEW PERSPECTIVES: In his stage production, Black! Michael Washington Brown explores what it means to be black, not only in America, but all over the world.
NEW PERSPECTIVES: In his stage production, Black! Michael Washington Brown explores what it means to be black, not only in America, but all over the world. Photo courtesy of Michael Washington Brown

“We have a subtheme for this year’s festival,” says Jocelyn Reece, co-organizer of The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival. “We are the Fearless Fringe.”

Entering its 15th year, the four-day multidisciplinary arts festival runs Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 26-29. Its latest message is in response to the recent presidential election. “We realize the festival is happening a week after the inauguration,” Reece says. “We feel very strongly that we want to promote a respectful and open and affirming creative space. We want our artists and audiences to not be afraid to be artists. And so we felt like fearless was the best way to describe that.”

As in years past, the gathering will feature more than 30 acts — both locally and nationally based — performing new and original material at a number of venues throughout Asheville. “We have some pieces that are very provocative and thoughtful, and others that are just sheer fun,” says Reece. “I think it’s a pretty good mix of the two.”

From behind closed doors

One of this year’s returning performers is Amanda Levesque. The 33-year-old artist has participated, with dance partner Tom Kilby, in the Asheville Fringe since 2011. This year’s production, Opening Amanda’s Closed Door, will be held at the BeBe Theatre. Levesque, who has limited mobility due to apraxia, considers it her most personal work to date. “I’m a virgin,” she says. “In this performance, I’m going to commence my sexuality through ritual and burlesque.”

While her previous shows have touched on the issues of sex and sexuality, those topics have never been the central focus. “We just decided that it was time to bring it to the forefront,” says Levesque. “I know that I’ll never be ‘normal,’ [but] I’d like people to be aware that most people with a disability want to be looked at as a sexual being.”

LET'S DANCE: Amanda Levesque rehearses with dance partners Giovanna Allegretti (left) and Tom Kimbly, in preparation for her latest show, "Opening Amanda's Closed Door." Photo by Thomas Calder
LET’S DANCE: Amanda Levesque rehearses with dance partners Giovanna Allegretti, left, and Tom Kilby, in preparation for her latest show, “Opening Amanda’s Closed Door.” Photo by Thomas Calder

For this reason, Levesque and Kilby brought in Giovanna Allegretti who, with a background in burlesque, helped shape the hourlong performance. In addition to a striptease, Allegretti will introduce bodywork to the act. “There is no touching,” she says. “I will run my hand over [Levesque’s] body and guide her as she opens and connects with herself, in an energetic and symbolic way.”

While Levesque views the performance as personal expression and self-exploration, her intention is for it to lend voice to the disabled community. “The message of the show is to be open to everyone’s sexuality,” she says. “I can’t speak for the whole disabled community, but I do believe that in general, the nondisabled — and even some people with a disability — see [the disabled] as asexual. To me, that’s crazy.”

New to the scene

The Asheville Fringe will also host a number of first-time participants. Arizona-based actor and writer Michael Washington Brown will debut his one-man show, Black!, at The Magnetic Theatre. He’s  excited not only to perform at Fringe but also to be an audience member. “I want to immerse myself in what’s going on,” he says. “I plan to make the most of my time in Asheville.”

Born in London, Brown was raised by Caribbean parents and came to the U.S. in 1992. He says much of the material in Black! is derived from personal experience. The show is composed of four monologues delivered by four characters, all played by Brown. These unnamed personalities come from different areas of the world — Europe, America, the West Indies and Africa. What they have in common is skin color, yet each offers a unique perspective on what being black means to him and how it has affected the way the character interacts with the world.

Brown has decades of experience onstage in New York City and San Francisco. His performance at the local Fringe Festival, however, will mark his first time writing a stage production. “I don’t want gimmicks,” he says, so Black! will have no set or wardrobe change between monologues. “If the characters are not distinguished by my voice and my actions, then I haven’t done my job.”

Brown is also emphatic about the show’s inclusivity. “The most important thing to me is not to make this a black and white thing,” he says. The message is universal: Black! intends to break down stereotypes and generalizations in order to highlight the similarities that exist across the world.

“Culturally speaking, we all have our own perspective,” says Brown. “But innately we’re connected, because we’re all human beings. We’ve got the same ability to express emotions. We want the same things in life: We want to be happy, we want to be surrounded by loved ones, we want to do good in the world.”

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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. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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