The day after Asante Ma’at graduates North Point High School on May 30, “When They See Us” debuts on Netflix.
The limited series tells the story of who the media dubbed the Central Park 5 — five teens wrongfully convicted for the rape and assault on a female jogger April 19, 1989, in New York City’s Central Park.
Ma’at —professionally known as Asante Blackk — portrays Kevin Richardson, who was 14 when he was arrested and charged following a police investigation that at best could be called lacking and at worst be described as criminal. The five spent six to 13 years in prison. In 2001, DNA evidence linked another man — who later confessed — to the crime.
The series was filmed in Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y., from August to November, and while the Ava Duvernay-directed series is a big break for Ma’at, it’s not the first time he’s been in the spotlight. As a second grader at the Judith P. Hoyer Montessori School in Landover, he played Mowgli in a production of “The Jungle Book.” He attended a children’s theater workshop in Washington, D.C., in eighth grade where he got the acting bug again. It was around this time when Ma’at took the initiative to land an agent and got one.
When he started high school at North Point as a freshman, he delved further — and seriously — into acting. Some of his past roles include Charlie Bucket in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Bud in “Father Knows Best,” Harry the Horse in “Guys and Dolls,” Montgomery McNeil in “Fame” and most recently Gus in “Saturday Night Fever.”
“He takes direction well. He thinks, he reacts,” said John Minor, North Point’s theater teacher. “He’s extraordinarily gifted when it comes to understanding characters.”
Playing a fictional character allows an actor a sort of elasticity to put his own spin on the role. Portraying a real person, a living person, is a different challenge, Ma’at said. He splits the role of Richardson with Justin Cunningham with Ma’at playing the former as a teen.
The cast met the five men at the center of “When They See Us” — Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise.
“We just talked,” Ma’at said of first meeting Richardson. “He is just one of the sweetest people.” It was a trait Ma’at hopes he brought to the role. “There is so much pain and sorrow. But I wanted to bring that sweetness and kindness, too. His pain and sorrow are not the only thing he is.”
Duvernay understood that the young actors haven’t been through the horror that their real-life counterparts experienced, but they would be tasked with portraying the swirling emotions of fear, anger and confusion. “Ava Duvernay is amazing, I’ve never met a kinder soul,” Ma’at said. “It got kind of crazy, but there was never a moment when I didn’t feel safe.”
Ma’at recently attended the premiere of “When They See Us” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He walked the red carpet, talked to the press, then had a surreal moment of watching an audience watch him on the screen.
His family is elated for him. The project’s subject matter is as topical now as it was in the 1980s, said his mother, Aiyana Ma’at. “It is meaningful and will have an impact on many levels,” she said. “It will contribute to the national dialogue and conversation.”
Ma’at will take a gap year from college. He has an agent based in New York and will continue auditioning for roles. Depending on how everything plays out, Ma’at has plans to study theater at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“He’s a very curious person. He likes to talk movies, TV. Sometimes I think he’s looking through a director’s eye and that might be in his future. I really believe he’s in tune with his craft,” Minor said. “He’s ready to work. I’m proud and happy with what he’s doing. I knew he was going to do it.”
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