Fact and fiction are intertwining for out performer Ashley Crowe. It's as if this moment in Crowe's life is being scripted by the late Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, who is best known for Six Characters in Search of an Author.
"It has been surreal," said Crowe, a Cayman-America who is making her Goodman Theatre debut as the student Nana in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.
Playwright Jocelyn Bioh's acclaimed 2017 off-Broadway play focuses on elite school girls in Ghana circa 1986. Many are vying to represent their African nation in the "Miss Global Universe" beauty pageant.
But the Pirandellian twist for Crowe is that she herself is in the midst of preparing to compete in a beauty pageant this September. Crowe is a real-life contestant in the Miss Cayman Islands Universe Pageant, which is part of the larger Miss Universe franchise.
"I was approached to compete in the pageant because I was told that this could really help out your career," Crowe said.
Indeed, showbiz lore is full of stories of stars like Halle Berry, Eva Longoria and Kate Shindle (who is now president of the union Actor's Equity Association) who each competed in pageants early in their careers.
But Crowe also felt that she could have an impact just by competing as an openly queer woman. For instance, Crowe noted that full marriage equality still has not come to the Cayman Islands, which operates as a British Overseas Territory.
"This is an opportunity for me to engage within my community, and to broaden the people who get to know who I am," said Crowe said. "I'm doing this as a contestant as me, and living my best life."
It has been hectic for Crowe to juggle performances of School Girls in Chicago and preparing for a pageant in the Caribbean. But Crowe is grateful for the opportunitiesespecially since her originally planned run of School Girls in early 2020 had to endue so much uncertainty amid an enforced 17-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The issues of cliques, class, colorism are all expertly brought up by playwright Bioh in School Girls. And performing in School Girls has also been illuminating for Crowe — particularly when so many personal parallels have come to the fore.
"Colorism is one of the biggest themes that hits home for me," Crowe said. "I'm mixed-race. My dad is a white American and my mom is Black Caymanian."
At the age of 10, Crowe moved to the U.S. to be with her father's side of the family.
"I love the white side of my family very much," said Crowe, also acknowledging the assimilation difficulties she had being "in all-white spaces as a Black child growing up in America, and not having somebody to teach you what being Black in America is like."
In summer of 2020, Crowe couldn't afford to continue living in Chicago. So she moved back in with her American family in Fairfield, Connecticut.
While there, Crowe held a one-woman 14-day protest on the Town Hall Green in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In addition to handing out literature, Crowe created large signs with slogans like "It is necessary to become anti-racist" and "Fairfield, CT is the incubator of my oppression."
"It really allowed me to step into my power and own who I am," Crowe said. "Because if I could be myself here in a place that I feel clipped my wings, then I could be myself anywhere."
Crowe also openly acknowledges the privilege that many bestow upon her due to her appearance and lighter skin. And she is grateful that this global legacy of colonialism gets so incisively and comically contextualized by Bioh in School Girls.
"I feel very responsible in being able to educate others as I continue to educate and liberate myself," Crowe said. "This play does that, and I love that I get to do that while we're all laughing and having a great time."
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play continues through Sunday, Aug. 29, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit goodmantheatre.org .