Ashley Blaine Featherson: "My Career Is a Love Letter to Black Women"

Breaking up is hard to do, especially when it’s with a character you’ve been playing for the better half of your career. But in Ashley Blaine Featherson’s case, the breakup with her beloved Dear White People counterpart Joelle was inevitable. She had spent five-plus years working on the indie film turned popular Netflix series about a group of Black college students at an Ivy League institution that touches on various topics of race relations and black identity, and it was time to graduate—literally and figuratively. But not without one last hurrah first!  

In an unexpected yet wonderful twist, the fourth and final volume of Dear White People is a full-on musical season (yes, season not episode) that surprises and delights across 10 episodes. Just when you thought the performances in Justin Simien’s satirical dark comedy couldn’t get any better, Featherson, Logan Browning, DeRon Horton, Marque Richardson, and the rest of the A-P House crew break out into spectacular song and dance as their characters gear up for the school’s annual “Varsity Show.” The theme: an ode to Black culture in the ’90s. With her musical theater background, Featherson steals the show, checking off yet another career bucket list item through Joelle. It’s a bittersweet ending to a project and character that has meant “everything” to Featherson. While she's saying goodbye to a role that challenged her in many ways and helped her find confidence, she’s moving on feeling fulfilled and ready for what's next. Rom-com gods, are you listening?

Ahead, I talk to Featherson about shooting the ambitious final season during a global pandemic, building a lifelong friendship with Browning, and manifesting her next big role. 

Photo:

Tisha Brenee

Having played Joelle in both the Dear White People film and Netflix series, what do this story and character mean to you? 

Wow, it means everything to me. I feel so blessed to play a character that people love so much. I love her so much. As a fan of the show myself, I think that Joelle is amazing. She’s a badass. She’s driven and so beyond her years. We start with her in college at 19, and to see how she grows and who she evolves into is just… Like I said, although I’m playing her, it’s such a beautiful journey to see her become the woman who she always wanted to be. To put it simply, it’s very fulfilling.  

Season four is sadly the show’s last, but it’s going out with a bang. It’s senior year for the crew, and this is a musical season. Can you tell me about working on this final season? 

Shooting this season was insane. We were supposed to shoot in April 2020, but obviously, it got pushed due to COVID. We geared back up in October, and typically, it’s a show we are able to shoot in about three months, but we weren’t able to finish until mid-February. So it was definitely, for a lot of reasons, the most difficult season for us to shoot. Hands down, everybody would say that. But also, it’s, in a lot of ways, the season I’m most proud of because despite the show almost completely changing format, us being in the midst of a global pandemic, and every obstacle that could have been thrown our way, I feel like we came out victorious, and we made a season that’s really beautiful and really fun. And it really shows how talented we are as a cast. I mean, what show goes from being fully not a musical to a musical in the last season? Every episode, there is music. Everyone is singing and dancing. It’s powerful that we were able to do it and do it so well. I’m just really excited to see how people receive it. 

Do you think audiences will be satisfied with the ending?

If you are a true fan of the show, you will be very satisfied with the ending. Unlike some shows when they end, you get to know, at least, where everyone lands and what’s going on with them. There’s not a lot of mystery at the end, which for me—as someone who just loves television—I really appreciate. I hate it when a show ends and I’m like, “Wait, what? I didn’t even know what happened.” That stresses me out. I think about it for years on end. So I hope that people feel like “Okay, at least I know where they all landed. I know that they’re okay, and I’m excited for their futures, even though obviously the show is over.” But you never know. There could be a spin-off. 

What are you going to miss most about playing Joelle?

Everything. As an actor, she has been such a joy to play because I feel like I get to do everything. I’ve gotten to sing. I’ve gotten to dance. I’ve gotten to have really emotional scenes. I’ve gotten to be really freakin’ funny. I’ve gotten to portray love and friendship and tragic events and heartbreak. As an actor, I feel really satisfied with all of the work I was able to do and was tasked with over 40 episodes and a movie. So similarly to what you were asking about the audience being satisfied and fulfilled, I feel the same way. I was okay with the show ending because I feel like I got to do everything I wanted to do, and people got to see that. So I’m going to miss everything about Joelle, but I’m so excited for everything that Joelle has prepared me for in my future.

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I want to ask about Joelle’s evolution from season one to season four. What would you say have been some of her biggest areas of growth?

I think the biggest area in which Joelle has grown is with her confidence. And I think most people wouldn’t say that about her because Joelle comes off as an extremely confident young woman. I don’t think anyone would look at Joelle and say that she lacks confidence. But playing her and really delving into the fiber of who she is, it’s not that Joelle lacks confidence. It’s that she needs to grow in her confidence. She needed to become more resolute in her decisions and the things that she wanted for herself, and if someone else didn’t get it or wasn’t on board with it, she had to be able to finally say, “That’s okay because that’s what I want.” For a lot of the seasons, Joelle was really trying to please everyone but herself. And in the times, which weren’t really a lot of times on screen, but the times in which you saw her conflicted or in turmoil or sad, it was often because of someone else. She put someone else before herself. So I think Joelle’s journey in self-care and confidence and self-acceptance has been the most powerful. And for me, I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ve had to realize that I was someone, too, who didn’t really prioritize self-care and put others oftentimes before myself and fought for other people’s happiness over my own. Joelle taught me that I need to not do that. It saved me a lot of heartache, a lot of stress, a lot of sadness and really, in turn, made me feel more confident. 

We have to talk about the Varsity Show. A-P House is producing it, and it’s an all-black ’90s musical that takes inspiration from some of the biggest acts of the era. Who are some of your favorite artists of that time?

So many people. I’m just going to go off the top of my head because there is the early ’90s and the late ’90s. I am a huge fan of Tamia. I love Tamia. SWV, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Mint Condition. Oh gosh, so many people: Total, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Eric Benét. There are just so many. The ’90s were good! Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo. I could go on and on. Just so many amazing artists came out of that time. It was a really good time for music. 

Were you guys brought in at all when thinking about the songs featured this season? 

A little bit. They did this thing where we had Varsity Show auditions. Again, our show wasn’t a musical, so they knew I could sing and had a musical theater background and all those things, and I had sung previously in the show, but they had to figure out who is singing, who is going to rap, whatever. So they had us come in and allowed us to sing or rap a song of our choice, and through that, they really figured out how to place us. But once we got the scripts and stuff for the show, I had no idea what songs we were singing. It was all a surprise for me. 

What song did you perform for your audition?

Oh my goodness, this was a long time ago. I know I sang “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid because that’s a big song in my repertoire and one of my favorite songs. Oh, my friend Nia and I did a duet of “Sending My Love to You,” which is a great duet from a famous duo in the ’90s [called Zhané]. I did not rap anything because I cannot rap. I can barely do spoken word. I was like, “If you want me to do something, all I’m doing is singing. I can dance. I can do that, too, but I can’t rap.” That’s where I draw the line. 

Photo:

Tisha Brenee

And then, of course, there is the ’90s fashion. We are currently seeing a resurgence of ’90s and early aughts fashion. Do you have any favorite trends/looks from that time period? Anything you would still wear today?  

Well tie-dye. I love tie-dye. Overalls. Love overalls. Live for overalls. Overalls are always going to be cute. I don’t care. And I like oversize stuff. I’m a girl who loves oversize clothes, and the ’90s is very much oversize fashion. I love a cute pleated skirt, like plaid Clueless vibes. 

Let’s talk about Joelle’s style. What were the early conversations for her look, and how did her style evolve over the four seasons?

I think her style is really cool. She is really bold in her fashion choices. Even outside of the ’90s stuff, all four seasons, she’s worn really cool oversize stuff, big jackets and coats and sweaters. She always wears a lot of jewelry, which I think is… My godmother always wears a lot of jewelry. She has rings on every finger and bracelets that go [up the arm], and I think that’s so royal. It reminds me of African queens. So I would say Joelle wears a lot of jewelry, which I think is amazing. She likes to do a lot of things with her hair, so she wears hair wraps and things like that. In this final season, she’s not wearing braids, which I’m sure people are going to be like, “Whoa.” Joelle switched it up on everybody really quickly. She also likes a good logo and will definitely do a good logo tee. She’s expressive in her clothing. Her clothing always feels intentional. She wakes up with the intent to get dressed and be cool. 

Do you like to be involved with the wardrobe piece of it?

Oh my gosh, our costume designers, Ceci and Michelle, they are amazing. They are so good. I love them so much. To be completely honest, I’m very trusting of the process. So we do fittings and stuff like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever been like, “Nah, I don’t want to wear that.” They are so good and so distinct. We all dress very differently. What Sam wears, Joelle would never wear. What Joelle wears, Sam would never wear. What Coco wears, Joelle would never wear and vice versa. And I think that is so cool. They ask me, but I’m always just like, “I love this. Let’s do it.” As long as it fits, I’m like, “Great.” 

One of my favorite parts of the show has always been Joelle and Sam’s friendship. What do you love about working with Logan Browning, and does that friendship carry over IRL?  

Honestly, it’s so funny. It’s rare what happened with Logan and I. Tabloids have been reporting on this for years, you know, about actors who play best friends on a show but actually hate each other. And the truth is that is the complete opposite of my and Logan’s relationship. Logan has become one of my nearest and dearest friends. She was with me on my bachelorette. We really translated our friendship on the show into real life. She is a lifelong friend and one of the parts of the show that I will miss the most. Now, I’m getting emotional. Playing her best friend on Dear White People has been… I don’t know what the journey holds and where I’ll land next, and prayerfully, I’ll have a very long career, but playing her best friend has, for sure, been my favorite role to date. It’s been one of my favorite experiences to date, and I know it will be in my lifetime. She is so generous, so talented, so funny, and the truth is Logan is just a good friend. She is a good person. It’s so funny. Sam is so flawed in the friendship area in so many ways, and Logan is not. Logan is really playing a character, okay? I honestly don’t have enough good things to say about Logan, and I’m just so grateful that she has become a lifelong sister and friend.

Photo:

Patrick McElhenney/Netflix

Dear White People touches on various issues surrounding modern American race relations. What do you hope audiences have learned from this show?

I think audiences have taken away that, one, Black people are not monolithic. We’re so expansive and wonderful and vast and strong, and I think that’s important for people to see, particularly on television. It’s such a major platform. It’s never lost on me that Dear White People is aired in 190 countries. So that means that almost anywhere we are in the world, people have access to see this type of representation, and I’m so grateful for that. But I also pray that people take away that Black people need support in a lot of different areas. We cannot fight a lot of the battles and injustices that we are fighting alone. We need your help. We need your support. We need your love. We need your encouragement. We need your prayers. We need your activism. And I just hope, through different scenarios and situations that have even happened on the show, that if people watching didn’t realize that or take it to heart before, then they will now. And you never know. That could be the difference—that could save someone’s life. 

Now that the Dear White People chapter is ending for you, what are you looking forward to next in your career?

Oh man, I want everything. I feel so blessed that I have been able to do this amazing show and be on this amazing show for four seasons. I love television. I am a true TV girl. I love the fact that you grow with the character over episodes. You know, those who have fallen in love with Joelle had 40 episodes to enjoy her and a movie to get to know her, and I just think that’s so beautiful. I’m really excited about another series, another TV home, another place to come into people’s living rooms either all at one time, like on streaming, or every week. I just think that’s so cool, and it’s a part of the industry I’ve always been attracted to. So I definitely want to do more TV, more films. I’m a rom-com girl. I would love to be in a rom-com. I want to produce. I have so much content I want to produce. I have a podcast I’m working on. I always say my career is a love letter to Black women. I always want to represent women who look like me in a way that always makes us proud and feel seen, so whatever that opportunity is next for me, that’s what I’ll be doing. 

You collaborated with Lena Waithe on the digital series Hello Cupid back in 2012. Who are some other creators you would like to work with?

I would love to work with Ava DuVernay. I would love to work with Shonda Rhimes. I would love to work with Barry Jenkins again. Janicza Bravo, I would love to work with her again. She is so amazing. Denzel Washington. Oh my gosh, so many people. Jeremy O. Harris. I want to work with all of the people. Debbie Allen. I want to be on The Crown. I’m obsessed. I want to be on The Crown and Succession. I need to be on those shows. I don’t know which royal I’m going to play, but they better figure it out.

Dear White People seasons one through four are now streaming on Netflix. 

Photographer: Tisha Brenee

Stylist: Scot Louie

Hairstylist: Alexander Armand

Makeup Artist: Dion Xu

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