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August Wilson Monologue Competition

April 12, 2016

On a still Saturday morning, the Seattle Repertory Theatre appears vacant.  The lobby is dark, but echoes come from a practice hall. In the dimly lit room a group of high school students shuffle around until student Julian Morgan takes center stage. He slouches on a steel chair with a slight scowl on his face, one arm carelessly flung over the chair’s back, legs crossed and a finger pointed at his audience.

He begins to bellow. “These n*****s talk about freedom, justice, equality and don’t know what it mean. See, you born free. It’s up to---”

He’s stopped mid-sentence by acting coach Zoe Wilson. She gives him notes, and he runs the line again.

Other students come up one by one to take Julian’s place; Wilson’s characters “Memphis,” “Tonya,” and “Rose” stand where a giddy teenager was a moment ago. Each character is from an August Wilson play, each performance a monologue.

For the previous month, every Saturday, the Rep hosted the contestants practicing for the March 10 regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition.  The annual competition invites young actors to perform a scene from one of Wilson’s powerful dramas.  Two regional winners are awarded a cash prize, and go up against other competitors at the national competition in New York, where they get the chance to perform on a Broadway stage.  

But it’s more than a grand trip to New York City; for many it’s about keeping a legacy alive.

Playwright August Wilson (photo by Chris Bennion, courtesy Seattle Repertory Theatre)“We told them about this guy, who’s August Wilson, who they may or may not have heard about. Then, they come to the Rep and get to really delve into the text — analyze and work with professionals. They get to go to New York and realize that it’s not them, and it’s not Seattle. It’s actually a whole nation,” says Arlene Martinez-Vazquez, education director at the Seattle Repertory.

August Wilson’s plays became a cherished part of American literature after he completed a chronicle of ten plays that portrayed the African American experience in each of the 20th century decades. 

 “He gave a voice to the voiceless,” says Zoe Wilson, the Rep’s Interim Education Manager.  “Men who have been incarcerated, the African American family, women who are working in diners … and he gives them these beautiful words. These metaphors, these soliloquies.”

[August Wilson] gave a voice to the voiceless,” says Zoe Wilson, the Rep’s Interim Education Manager.  

The so-called Century Cycle earned Wilson two Pulitzer prizes and the title of “America’s Shakespeare.” His sudden death in 2005 from liver cancer stunned the literary world.

The August Wilson Monologue Competition has become a way to reintroduce August Wilson to newer generations and keep the African-American experience relevant through the dramatic medium.

Student Jordan Davis-Miller is “Booster” — a frustrated, disappointed son — from Jitney.  He delivers the text in a stubborn stance, emotion creasing his face. 

“You came out on the porch, and he started shouting, and cussing, and threatening us to put us in the street where we belonged. I was waiting for you to tell him to shut up! To get off your porch, but you just stood there and promised to have the money next month.”

Education intern Sarah Menke approaches Davis-Miller with some direction.  “When you go to move, make sure that it is specific,“ she says. 

Franklin High School student Rachel Kaftan as Tonya from "King Hedley II."Rachel Kaftan is next, as “Tonya” from King Hedley II.  The words spill out of her, a tale of unspeakable loss and misfortune.

“One minute her house is full of life. The next minute it’s full of death. She was waiting for him to come home and they bring her a corpse. Say, ‘Come down and make the identification. Is this your son?’ Got a tag on his toe say ‘John Doe.’ They got to put a number on it. John Doe number four.”

These young actors have to get to know August Wilson without seeing a full play.  The power of the text is difficult.  Saying the N-word is difficult. Conveying the weight of oppression that most of these young people will never know is difficult.

"Every single student is going outside their comfort zone, no matter what color they are," says Zoe Wilson.

“My characters very loud and outspoken … before I start my monologue I have to say, okay, you're Memphis from Pittsburgh now, not Julian,” says Julian Morgan, whose father actually grew up with Wilson in Pittsburgh. “[My father] always tells me that August Wilson’s characters, their names always sound familiar, and sound like people he grew up with.”

They hear stories about how Wilson used to write in the bars and restaurants of Capitol Hill, oddly public in most writer’s worlds.

“I knew he would go into a cafe up on Capital Hill and sit down and have long discussions with people all the time and talk about the art of writing and poetry,” shared Chic Streetman, blues singer, musician, and actor. He says even when August was in his final stages of cancer he would sit on his porch and hold conversations with passers-by.

Wilson was a “mellow, easygoing, laid-back guy,” Streetman says. “He wasn't the kind of person to say, 'Look at me!' That was why when he got up on stage and let loose, it was like, wow.”

Streetman has been a judge for the competition several times. The main thing he looks for in a competitor? “It’s got to be honest, because I think it’s important that they enjoy what they're doing — the students, the actor, the musician, whoever.”

Wilson’s history is alive at Seattle Repertory Theatre, as a new generation of actors work their way through the competition. His words flow through these essaying voices, connecting with new audiences.

The two Seattle winners, Rachel Kaftan and Amir Matheney, will be just two of many students to advance Wilson’s legacy a step further as they make their way to New York City in April.