Cycerli Ash.

Getting to Fly in Theatre

Driven by her love of acting on the stage, Cycerli Ash goes where she needs to go.

As a child, Cycerli (pronounced Cecily) Ash (’10) used to drive with her family three hours to church. From their home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Ashes journeyed to Far Rockaway, Queens, and the Holy Ghost Headquarters Prayer Band Mission Church, where her mother, Polly Ash, was an assistant pastor. “At Holy Ghost Headquarters my mother felt safe, felt free, felt needed,” says Ash. “Church was always central to our lives.” The family attended services, then drove three hours home.

No wonder that, as a hustling Atlanta-based actor, Ash regularly relocates for stage roles—Marley and all three ghosts in A Christmas Carol in Portland, Oregon; Cynthia in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat in Denver in June 2019; A Life in Portland in 2018, and roles in Louisiana and Las Vegas. In each city, she connects with a talent agency, because you never know what may come of it.

She was in A Christmas Carol when she got a call to audition for the role of Senator Park-Lewis in three episodes of the TV series Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists. “I got the part and I never missed a performance,” says Ash. “I love theatre with everything in my soul. But film pays more. With film you’re only acting for a minute. In theatre it’s continuous—you get to develop the characters from beginning to end. You get to take off, you get to fly in theatre.”

The Ashes were the only black family in the tiny town of Beach Lake, Pennsylvania. Ash’s parents were divorced; her father, Lionel Ash, was a police officer in New York state. Her mother, in addition to serving as a pastor, taught in the Pennsylvania prison system during the week and believed in keeping her kids active. “She got us into everything,” says Ash, who started acting classes at age nine. The youngest behind six brothers, she was a cheerleader, a center in basketball, and a track long jumper and sprinter—but acting was always in the back of her head.

“After I pulled a hamstring, I tried the shot put and placed third in the district. I got a throwing coach and went from 35 feet to 42 feet. My senior year in high school I saw Heather Headley in Aida, someone of my complexion as a leading lady on Broadway, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Ash was recruited as a weight thrower by Division I schools but spent her freshman year at nearby St. Francis University, winning the Northeast Conference title in discus and shot put but not performing on the stage. “I wanted a bigger pond,” she says, “so I went to Rutgers.” She was recruited as a decathlete but focused on shot put, discus, and weight and hammer throws. She had a self-designed theatre major and as a senior set the school record for the discus and was the team MVP. “At Rutgers,” Ash recalls, “I asked my mom what I should do in life. She said, ‘Do what you love.’ So I knew I was going to do theatre.

Cycerli Ash teaching a class.“Being a Division I athlete,” she says, “I was not able to immerse myself in the study of acting, but athletics gave me discipline, drive, and self-motivation. Acting in the real world is a lot of hustle. If you don’t get what you want, you have to work harder to get it. When someone tells me I can’t do something, that makes me all the more determined.”

This fall Ash returned to UT to meet with Associate Professor Jed Diamond’s acting classes, including the first- and third-year MFA cohorts.

Diamond tells the students about Ash’s reputation in the acting world: “Clear ethics around professionalism; kind, considerate, not a diva,” he says. “She is versatile and flexible. These things count.”

“The stuff that I’ve been told is because of this man here,” says Ash, nodding and pointing toward Diamond. “The training here is second to none. It’s foundational, the principles of the art of acting. My first year, I fought this man. I was disappointed that I didn’t get into NYU’s program.

“When I got down here, I was angry that there were hardly any black people. There was no one for me to identify with. I had a chip on my shoulder. I thought, ‘No one understands me.’ I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could relate to. I put a negative wall up before I realized that people want to help you. After I got over my anger, I felt safe with Jed.

“I literally had a conversation with myself—be better. Take the bull by the horns and take what these amazing teachers are trying to teach me. I realized they were trying to understand me as much as they could.

“I remember I didn’t think Jed could help me, until I realized he could see right through me. He told me to stop acting and to allow myself to really be attracted to the actor I was working with.

“When I knew I could not hide from Jed, I knew this man could help me. He knows how to bring out the best in any person, but only if you are open to receive.

“We worked a lot on dialects,” Ash remembers. “When I open my mouth, people don’t even know where I’m from. I can do American standard dialect, whatever is called for.

“I developed my confidence at the Clarence Brown Theatre,” says Ash. “With the support system in the program and the Actors Equity Association card, the transition into the professional world was easy.  The rigors of the MFA program—9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., then rehearsal—developed my endurance.”

Cycerli Ash teaching dance.Associate Professor Casey Sams’s movement class went to the zoo to observe the animals’ movements. “We clashed,” says Sams, touching her fists, “because we tend to do things slowly, working down to the bottom of a problem. Cycerli is not like that. She wants to go right now, see a problem, fix a problem, and get it done. But over time she realized that when you dive deep and see all aspects, you can come up with deeper solutions.”

Among her many CBT productions, Ash played Sophie in Flyin’ West with Deborah Alley directing an all-black cast. “We learned to feel who we are from the ground up,” Ash remembers. Like others who were involved with the 2009 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Ash observed valuable lessons in professionalism and the craft watching alumna and Independent Spirit Award–winner Dale Dickey play Blanche Dubois. “She nailed it,” says Ash. “She was just right there from the minute she walked in the door every day.”

The students ask Ash for her tips on making it. “Work on a reel—take roles on TV, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, indy films. In Atlanta, I did student films to get material for film clips.

“Be physically fit. While I was at UT, I did tai chi, was a physical trainer, and wore out my Nikes playing basketball.” She is now a black belt in Hapkido. At five foot eight, Ash seems taller, in part because of her physical presence and palpable charisma. Even in casual conversation, she seems to glow. “Psycho-physically,” says Diamond, speaking the language of acting teachers, “Cycerli is so open. The directness of her energy directly relates to acting.” Says Sams, “Cycerli takes care of herself emotionally, physically, and spiritually. You can feel that.”

In the indy movie Skinned, Ash plays a psychiatrist who is strong, athletic, and confident doing crunches with her athlete husband—a counterpoint to the movie’s protagonist, who is suffering the consequences of using a skin-bleaching cream. But in the 2012 film Never Alone, Ash is dissolute and ashen as a writer who has taken to the bottle. “I can do anything,” she says. “No one can pigeonhole me. I can do a doctor, a lawyer, a crack addict, a drunk. For Never Alone, I would go to bars and look at how people act when they were intoxicated.”

“Don’t wait on anyone,” Ash tells the students. “Utilize your resources, all your contacts. You have to get yourselves out, stay humble. There are people out there with bigger names. And be open to commercials. Doing commercials allows you to do theatre. Just by showing my hands for a Home Depot ad I made enough to be able to take my next two theatre roles.”

Cycerli Ash.

Photos by Steven Bridges

UT 225th anniversaryThis story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.

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