August 14, 2022

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ALBANY — Eight times next week, Ajani Acloque will wait for a call or text...

ALBANY — Eight times next week, Ajani Acloque will wait for a call or text that could upend his plans for the next few hours. But in an ideal world, the notification will come and he’ll continue with his normal college life, even if that means never getting to perform for an audience at Capital Repertory Theatre.
Acloque, a senior at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, is understudying all four lead roles roles in The Rep’s production of “Fly,” a drama about the group of Black U.S. aviators in World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen, named after where they trained in Alabama. Should any of the four actors playing the roles be unable to perform, because of injury, illness or another reason, Acloque would get the call, perhaps with only an hour’s notice — enough time to drive from Saratoga to Albany, get into costume, warm up and be waiting in the wings at curtain time.

“I know my role is not to go on,” he said, chatting on the phone from Skidmore earlier this week. “From the director to the props guy, it’s a team effort for everyone. I feel so fortunate to be part of this production even if, at the end of the day, my job is to sit tight and study the roles and wait.” “Fly” runs through Feb. 20 at The Rep’s North Pearl Street home.
A theater professor at Skidmore, Dennis Schebetta, alerted Acloque that The Rep was looking for a young Black actor to understudy roles ranging in age from 18 to mid-20s. Acloque, 22, sent a video audition that impressed the show’s director, Clinton Turner Davis, and The Rep’s producing artistic director, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill.

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“Ajani didn’t ‘act’ in his audition. He didn’t wear the character like a suit,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “He just did it. The hardest thing to do is make the character look like it’s you. It doesn’t have to be you, but it has to 100 percent appear to be you.” 
To prepare for “Fly,” Acloque printed four copies of the script, one for each role he is understudying, and made detailed notes for the characters in their respective scripts. There’s W.W., a slick guy from Chicago; Oscar, a self-identified “race man” from Iowa who’s hyper-focused on advancing Black causes; J. Allen, hailing from the West Indies; and Chet, the youngest, still a teenager but already a licensed pilot from years of working at a Long Island airfield, who also appears as an elderly version of himself in a frame story set during the 2008 inauguration of President Obama.  

For Acloque, who is of Haitian descent, the Caribbean-born character was the easiest to master, in emotional makeup and accent; the hardest was Oscar, the Iowan, an intellectual who attended a historically Black university. Acloque said he intently studied the performance of Trevor McGhie, who plays Oscar.

“From watching Trevor work, I saw that what’s important about Oscar is that he has this kind of Black pride and this way of carrying  himself that’s not necessarily specific to being from Iowa. It’s more about what Oscar represents that I had to understand,” said Acloque.
He also had to learn a dance number. Dance infuses “Fly,” which has as a central presence a character called The Tap Griot. Named after traveling musicians and storytellers who maintain oral-history traditions in West Africa, the griot isn’t part of the plot proper, but he functions as the conscience of the show and a reflection of the inner emotions the airmen must stifle if they wish not to give their racist white Army superiors a pretext for kicking them out of the flight program.

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Acloque said he relishes being in a play by Black authors, with a Black director and a cast with five of its members eight members who are Black.

“I’ve really connected with The Tap Griot character,” said Acloque. Because he’s at Skidmore, with a student population more than 60 percent white and less than 5 percent Black, according to the college’s figures, “I don’t typically work with actors and a director and a team that looks like me.” While he said he hasn’t experienced at college the vicious racism espoused by a senior officer in the play, “I’ve been in rooms and spaces where I had some of the same feelings” as the airmen that get expressed through The Tap Griot’s dancing.
“It’s one thing to understudy in ‘Hedda Gabler,’” Acloque said. “It’s a joy to be here, doing this, with everyone coming together to tell a story that really hits us personally.”  
The griot usually dances alone, but in one scene he leads the airmen in a rousing step-dance number.

“I know the choreography, and I’ve had a chance to practice it, but it’s a little nerve-wracking, because although everybody’s basically doing the same thing, it’s a little different depending on which character I’m playing,” said Acloque.

Further, he said, “I’m not a dancer. But I’m an actor, which I guess means I’m a dancer.”

Acloque participated in multiple rehearsals and comes down from Saratoga to attend several performances per week, preferably on nights when he doesn’t have an 8 a.m. French class the next day.
Acloque will graduate this spring with majors in psychology and religion. And then, it’s the actor’s life for him.
“I very much want to be an actor,” he said. “I want to pursue work, get representation, do a year in New York and one in L.A.”
He thinks the uncertainty of being an understudy for “Fly,” with voluminous work going into learning roles he may never play, or may be called on to do so with almost no notice, is good preparation for the often-itinerant career of acting for stage, film and television.
“It’s a different life than most, playing make believe and telling stories to feed yourself and pay your taxes,” Acloque said. “I find it stressful, but I kind of like the stress, the not knowing.”   

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“Fly”
Where: Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., AlbanyRunning time: 90 minutes, no intermissionPerformances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; additional Wednesday matinee, 2 p.m. Feb. 16; closes Feb. 20Tickets: $27 to $62Info: 518-445-7469 and capitalrep.org Note: Admission to the theater requires proof of coronavirus vaccination and photo ID. Masks are required to be worn when inside. 

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