NEW YORK CITY: The 8th annual August Wilson Monologue Competition felt less like a contest and more like an induction ceremony for the 18 finalists.
The event, which took place at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre on May 2, was the final round of a nationwide competition for high school students. The regional competitions were open to students in New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Dallas; each year the program adds two new locations.
Produced in collaboration between True Colors Theatre Company and Jujamcyn Theaters, the event was helmed by Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler. Leon is the artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company, which developed the program; he also hosted the competition.
“Who in the audience has directed or performed in an August Wilson play?” said Leon to the audience, as attendees yelled out their names, clapped, and cheered. “We thank August Wilson for getting us into the game, for giving us these roles to play and direct,” added Leon.
The evening was a rite of passage for the 18 finalists in becoming true “Wilsonian soldiers,” Leon said. He charged the participants to carry on the values of Wilson’s plays and to share the legacy of his work.
Between monologue performances, Leon recited lines from Wilson’s works, challenging audience members to name the character and the play they came from. To keep up the energy in the room, Leon also did push-ups—sometimes with just one leg—in front of the excited crowd.
Judges for the finals included John Earl Jelks, Roslyn Ruff, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jack Viertel, and Pauletta Washington. Cohost Amber Iman, currently appearing in Shuffle Along, announced each of the finalists and kept a record of time throughout the competition. Blues musician Guy Davis performed while the judges deliberated.
The winners of this year’s competition were Ireon Roach from Chicago in first place, Damaris Vizvett from Fontana, Calif., in second place, and DaMya Gurley from Pittsburgh in third place. All 18 finalists were gifted a box set of Wilson’s Century Cycle, published by Theatre Communications Group.
The finalists and their chaperones spent the weekend before the competition in New York City, working on their monologues and seeing Broadway shows. After seeing Hamilton, participants met with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show and stars in the title role, and Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington. The students also saw The Color Purple, and had a talkback session with Jennifer Hudson and some other cast members after the show.
“Just being surrounded by art and the people who do it, who are good at it, and would like to help the future of it—it has been amazing,” said Roach. She first learned Ruby’s monologue from King Hedley II as part of her school’s curriculum, and took home the grand prize of $3,000.
After reading through the Century Cycle, Vizvett selected Vera’s monologue from Seven Guitars. “This one just popped out,” she said. “I thought: I have to do this one. Just reading this one, I was in tears.” Vizvett won the second place prize of $2,000.
Gurley, who portrayed Tonya from King Hedley II and took home the third-place purse of $1,000, was excited to represent Wilson’s hometown. “It’s been years since someone from Pittsburgh has placed in the nationals, and the fact that I get to take this home the same year that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are filming a movie [of August Wilson’s Fences] in our city—it means a lot,” she said. “I live in the Hill District, and I felt like I owed this to August. He means so much to me.”
After the awards ceremony, Leon said, “I think August would smile tonight to see his words come out of the mouths of such a diverse and varied group of young people. It says a lot about the power of the artistry and the lasting legacy of his contribution.”