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Exploring Social and Artistic Growth with the Students of the August Wilson In-School Residency

It has been an absolute pleasure observing and serving local high school students as they participated in Center Theatre Group’s fourth season of the August Wilson In-School Residency program. The August Wilson In-School Residency program, one of CTG’s premiere arts education programs, sends professional teaching artists to four Title I schools in Los Angeles to introduce students to Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson, his works and influences. Within 15 sessions, participating students are able to discuss historical and contemporary themes and concepts drawn from Wilson’s Century Cycle of plays. In addition, throughout the residency, students discover their own personal truths by expressing themselves through writing exercises, composing original blues songs, creating Romare Bearden-inspired collages, individualizing Amiri Baraka poems and taking part in other arts-related activities.

PUC CALS Early College High School students creating Bearden-inspired collages. Throughout my time as CTG’s August Wilson In-School Residency intern, I have taken on the challenge of assessing the program’s structure and curriculum. Having observed over 16 sessions at three of the four partnering schools, I have gained special insight into what aspects of the program have really resonated with the students, as well as which activities still need some revision. I have also been able to participate in the planning and development of the program. This includes attending the two program team building meetings that occur at the beginning and in the middle of the residency program with CTG staff, teaching artists and the residency teachers; helping coordinate the residency students’ field trip to the August Wilson Monologue Competition Regional Finals; and contributing to the ongoing internal project development meetings. With this position, I have also had the privilege of watching students discover, create and analyze the ways in which August Wilson and his influences inspire artistic development.

One of my favorite memories during the residency program was at Thomas Jefferson High School. The students were exploring one of August Wilson’s four inspirations, the blues. The related activity challenged students to write their own lyrics. After being presented with a brief example, the students jumped right into the activity. Within minutes, they were writing about anything and everything, including pencils, sweaters, tacos and friendship. One student even discovered that she had a talent for songwriting. She wrote almost four verses in less than 15 minutes. Before sharing her song with the class, she convinced one of her classmates to join in with an accompanying beat! It was so great to see students excited about art-making and proud of the work they were creating.

One student who particularly stood out to me was a fifth-year high schooler at PUC CALS Early College High School. In the beginning of the program, he was often in the corner of the classroom, hood on, head down and avoiding eye contact with CTG teaching artist Khanisha Foster. However, as Khanisha made an effort to make him feel included and discover concepts and topics that engaged him, such as music, he began to slowly open up. The first spark was after he attended the August Wilson Monologue Competition’s Regional Finals. Khanisha said that he was really engaged with Wayne Mackins-Harris’ monologue performance of Herald Loomis from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Then, after watching a video performance of a scene from Fences, he opened up about how it reminded him of the relationship he had with his own father. Finally, on the last day of the residency, the reflection day, he shared with the class a very honest and personal Bearden-inspired collage, paired with a just-as-impressive artist statement: “My artwork represents how I’ve been excluded but now I feel stronger in the world.” What a journey! I was so proud of him – for allowing himself to be open and for letting his voice be heard.

In four months, these students learned about the themes in all 10 plays from August Wilson’s Century Cycle, including reading the play Fences in its entirety; attended the August Wilson Monologue Competition Regional Finals at the Mark Taper Forum; engaged in community conversations on culture, identity, family, sacrifice, politics and past and present American history; and created their own short scenes, blues songs, picture collages and poems. Not only were these selected students now August Wilson scholars, some were “Wilsonian soldiers,” armed and ready to battle the social injustices present in their respective communities. During the open mic-style reflection day at Los Angeles River School, one student shared her personal essay about growing up in a patriarchal household where women are mistreated. She voiced how she is now motivated to change that in her community. “My goal is to be a role model for young girls,” she stated.

What’s next for the August Wilson In-School Residency program? One recommendation that I leave with CTG in my final days is to consider publishing the curriculum and making it easily accessible to other educators. What if August Wilson’s plays were taught and performed as much as William Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams? How would that change the social beliefs and interactions of this next generation?

I hope that August Wilson’s stories, themes and influences carry on in the lives of the residency students. I hope that they continue to challenge themselves both artistically and socially, finding ways to share their voice with their communities. Most importantly, I hope the students continue to be inspired, in the same way this internship has inspired me.

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