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One performing arts organization leaves huge impact on city

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Members of the Asante Art Institute pose together. (Photo provided/Asante Art Institute)

The Asante Art Institute (AAI), which began as a place for children to develop their performing arts skills, has expanded its reach profoundly throughout Indianapolis over the past 30 years.

In 1990, Deborah Asante, founding artistic director, created the Asante Children’s Theatre.

As the years progressed, she and Executive Director Keesha Dixon shared the vision that it would become the premier African American arts and cultural organization.

They recognized the program’s evolution and changed its name from the Asante Children’s Theatre to the Asante Art Institute to better reflect its growth and mission.

“We understood that we were doing more than children’s theatre,” said Asante. “We were doing community development work and wanted to present a face to the community that aligned with that.”

As a result of AAI’s continuing expansion, the performing arts organization now has partners across the city, including Warren Township, Moorhead Community Resource Center, Indy Juneteenth, Conner Prairie, the Boys and Girls Club and the Indiana State Museum.

Through its partnership with the Indiana State Museum, AAI is currently featuring young adult performers in “Str8 Up Frederick Douglass in Rhythm, Rap and Jazz,” described in a statement made by the museum as a “hip-hop exploration of the life and legacy of (the) prophet and freedom-fighter.” Additional dates have been added due to the show’s popularity with visiting students.

“The ensemble was so creative in the way they integrated their research on Frederick Douglass and content from the museum’s influencing Lincoln exhibit into this vibrant production of dance, music, rap and storytelling — they truly bring history to life,” said Bethany Thomas, vice president of programs and education engagement. “Audiences are interacting with the actors throughout the performance and responding with standing ovations at the close of the show. It’s a great way for visitors to learn while having fun!”

This summer, AAI and Conner Prairie will partner again to present a history-based musical showcasing teen performers. The young artists will create the show under the direction of the AAI staff and receive a stipend at the end of the summer.

Dr. Charlene Fletcher, Conner Prairie’s Lead curatorial director and AAI alumna, says the storytelling skills she learned as a young performer have helped her as an author and national speaker. The partnership between AAI and Conner Prairie is the high point of her work. She recognizes the deep and wide impact AAI has had on the city and around the world due to the many things AAI alumni are doing.

“The impact of Asante is not just significant – it’s monumental,” said Fletcher.

AAI brought the Sankofa Paradigm Initiative, a program for girls combining creativity and wellness, to the Wheeler Dowe Boys and Girls Club. Since its inception, the AAI program has caused the attitudes of the young ladies to shift, said Boys and Girls Club Site Director Lynnea Redmon.

“From the moment they started working with the girls at the club, they created a space for authentic connection,” said Redmon. “Each young lady has gained a sense of self-awareness, compassion for their peers and a connection to the community.”

Over the years, AAI has made its mark in the Indianapolis area through its programs, countless original productions and the influence it has had on students’ lives.

“I realized that I had a strong talent for facilitating growth in other artists, especially young artists,” Asante explained.

This was the case for Terrance Asante-Doyle, son of Asante and AAI program manager. Asante-Doyle reminisced the time he spent performing in the organization’s yearly African Folk Tale Festival. During this time, Asante would split the children into several groups, and within those groups, the children would choose a director, a costume designer and actors.

The groups would put together a production based on the African Folk Tale they were assigned. This would kick off the beginning of each season of AAI.
Asante-Doyle described his experience with AAI growing up as life changing.

“It is the one thing that has prepared me for life,” Asante-Doyle told the Recorder. “As a young person, even as a young adult, I can look back at it as a singular influence that continues to drive what I do today.”

Assistant Artistic Director AshLee Baskin recognizes how much AAI has influenced the arts. As a professional singer, poet and spoken word artist, Baskin regularly works alongside AAI alumni throughout the city. Baskin said there is about one degree of separation between any local artist and an AAI alum.

“The Asante Art Institute is essential to the eco-system of Black artists,” said Baskin.
Asante hopes the organization will continue to honor her legacy by ensuring that the community has access to quality arts programming.

“I want to be a vehicle for artists that come from this soil to be able to blossom … and they can start it here,” Asante said.

Additional reporting done by Timoria Cunningham.

Contact Editor-in-Chief Camike Jones at 317-762-7850 or CamikeJ@indyrecorder.com.

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