Erica Ash is the personification of joyful energy. Whether it’s starring in your favorite classic sketch television show (she was like the Condoleeza Rice version of the Obama Anger Translator before her Mad TV co-star Keegan-Michael Key did it later on his show) or prank calling her friend Tisha Campbell-Martin, it’s damn near impossible to ignore her presence.
Now, she’s bringing that same energy to the basketball court. Directed by Charles Stone III, Uncle Drew follows Dax (Lil Rel Howery) who embarks on a journey with the legendary Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) and rounds up his septuagenarian basketball team to help Dax with the Rucker Classic streetball tournament against his longtime rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll). The film famously stars NBA legends and greats such as Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Lisa Leslie and Nate Robinson as Drew’s OG squad. The film also stars Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps. Ash portrays Maya, the granddaughter of Robinson's character, Boots.
I chatted with Ash about how she relates to Maya, what it was like working with so many basketball legends, facing challenges in the comedy industry, her advice to up-and-coming comedians and her “famous cookies.”
As soon as I heard the boisterous “Heyyyy Tonja Renée” reverberate through my phone’s speakers, I knew I was in for a sisterly chat. We started with Maya and whether Ash is anything like her. Ash spoke about how she can relate to the way Maya shoots those “dry, subliminal jabs.” “There’s a part of me that’s a little bit of a girl-next-door, but she has the ability to snap if you push her too far, which you’ll see in the confrontations between Tiffany Haddish and me,” she said.
What drew Ash to the script of what she envisions to be “the movie of the summer” was the concept of “family” and how it can extend beyond bloodlines. “Family is what you make it,” she quoted. That sentiment rang true behind-the-scenes, as well. Working on the set of Uncle Drew was like a family for Ash, who recalled having “big brother / little sister” conversations with Chris Webber and Reggie Miller. “Nate Robinson was always baggin’ on people, so nobody was safe around Nate,” she recalled.
Speaking of baggin’ on folks, she even talked about baking cookies for the cast, and some of them weren’t a fan. “If you ask anyone in the cast about my famous cookies, you’ll get mixed reviews, but my cookies were dope! They were amazing, and people who did not like them just missed out, and their taste buds need rearranging,” Ash quipped as I cracked up. Ash -- a self-proclaimed “health nut” -- would make healthy peanut butter cookies with flour-alternatives, and the cast didn’t trust it. Yep, just like a black family, indeed.
Ash is intentional in choosing characters that are different from each other, and her resume is a reflection of that. With roles in television shows such as In Contempt, The Real Husbands of Hollywood and Survivor’s Remorse, not one character is like the other. “Generally, my character is the one who brings the funny and is kind of over-the-top in some way and Maya is the straight character[…] she’s sort of the grounding energy whereas everyone else is over-the-top with their funny and their prosthetics,” noted Ash. With Maya, Ash is “spreading [her] wings.”
As a comedic actor who pulls her inspiration from people-watching and taking in their various quirks, Ash has had quite the extensive career. Naturally, she boasts an impressive sketch comedy background such as The Big Gay Sketch Show and Mad TV, the latter of which she became the fifth black woman cast member in the show’s history. The industry can be quite the rollercoaster (hearing a lot of “no’s”), and Ash admits her greatest challenge is “continuing” and reiterates how important it is for her to stay in a moment of “grounding and peace.” Her career is thankfully “abundant” right now.
As someone who is doing-the-damn-thing right now, I had to ask what advice can she pay-it-forward to black women comedians on the rise. “Don’t stop for anything! If you believe in what you do, that’s the first thing,” she stressed, firmly. “Don’t wait for outside approval, just keep pushing in the direction you’re going. It takes everybody different amounts of time, and everybody’s path is just so, so different. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Own your funny! Because your funny has an audience.”
A slam dunk.
Uncle Drew is now playing in theaters.