NEW YORK CITY: Just days after August Wilson would have celebrated his 70th birthday, hundreds gathered to see a new generation give life to his words at the August Wilson Monologue Competition on Tuesday, May 4.
“August Wilson gave soul to the country, he gave arts a true place in our country,” said Kenny Leon, artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company, which developed the event. “I miss him every day, but he left us 10 great plays that continue to keep on giving. I think he would smile to see these kids of all races and genders reading his words. It’s really special.”
Held at the August Wilson Theatre and co-sponsored by Jujamcyn Theaters, the 7th annual competition, which had Leon and True Colors associate artistic director Todd Kreidler at the helm, has dual aims: to preserve the legacy of the late playwright and create educational opportunities for students to connect to the vignettes of African-American history depicted in his plays.
This year’s competition flew in 24 students from Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Chicago, from which 16 finalists were selected to perform on May 4. The winners this year were Moyè Light from Atlanta, with first place; Cameron Southerland of Atlanta, runner-up and Jonathan German of New York City, honorable mention.
Judges for the finals included Crystal Dickinson, Brandon J. Dirden, David Gallo, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Pauletta Washington. Sponsor Delta Air Lines surprised participants by matching the cash prizes, thereby doubling the award amounts (to $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000). At the ceremony, Tony-winning actor Anthony Chisholm was awarded the August Wilson Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Wilson’s work in the theatre community. And all finalists were all gifted a box set of Wilson’s Century Cycle.
Grand prize winner Light said she was first introduced to Wilson’s work in theatre class while working on a production of Fences.
“I am inspired by his work,” she said after peforming a selection from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “His plays are guidance to what is going on now, and people really need to listen to it. They really need to hear his stories, because it makes sense when it all comes together.”
Southerland, who performed a piece from Fences, said he chose the monologue because he “fell in love with just the words; I was given a voice. I did the character Troy, and Troy reminds me so much of my father—the way he talks, the tough love that he gives. My dad’s not really able to come to a lot of my shows that I do. The first time he saw me perform was at the finals in Atlanta. So for me to step into his shoes for a minute and 40 seconds is beyond monumental, because I can feel the love that he tries to give me, and I think that is the soul of why I chose my piece.”
German, who did a monologue from Jitney, said that his favorite part of the competition was “getting to meet every other contestant from all these other cities. They are gifted and talented people, and the experience with them was bigger than anything this entire weekend. Winning is great, but meeting all these contestants was just absolutely amazing.”
Leon charged all finalists and audience members to be “Wilsonian soldiers” by continuing to produce his work and making his plays available in every school library. Throughout the competition, the crowd responded with shouts and applause at each speech, as if they were at a pep rally.
“I would hope that they leave here knowing that America is theirs and they can do whatever it is they want to do,” Leon said. “I want them to leave here with a sense of confidence. and also knowing that they have friends who support them and care about them, and older folks who care and love them.”