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Literacy Day at the California African American Museum: August Wilson's words come to life

When I arrived at Literacy Day at the California African American Museum (CAAM) on Saturday, May 23, I was greeted by Elise Woodson, the museum’s program manager and film curator, who showed me to an intimate room where a number of other Los Angeles August Wilson Monologue Competition Regional and National Finalists and I would be performing. A few others were already chatting and enjoying the museum’s exhibits when I arrived. Beautiful galleries with contemporary pieces from African-American artists hung on the walls, and the entire museum was buzzing in preparation for the day’s events. Men and women were setting up microphones, bringing in African drums and preparing carts with hot food for sale.

One of the first displays I noticed was a collection of photos documenting a trip Elise Woodson took to visit prominent historic locations of the civil rights movement. As I took in the exhibits and saw preparations underway for the day’s festivities, I felt excitement, importance, tradition, celebration and history in the air—an appropriate environment for the performances the other finalists and I would soon share. In celebration of National Children’s Book Week, CAAM offers an annual Literacy Day which includes celebrity readers, local authors, arts and crafts workshops, live entertainment, booksellers on-site and book giveaways.

Although I was a finalist in 2014 and have spent the last year living in New York City, I instantly felt a connection with the 2015 finalists I met that morning. Despite our different ages, races, social, cultural and economic backgrounds, all of us were united by an appreciation for and a connection to the work of August Wilson.

To me, that is the greatest power of this program. The August Wilson Monologue Competition is not really a competition—at least not in the sense that there are winners and losers. Although I was fortunate enough to “win” in Los Angeles and perform on Broadway, the true reward of this experience was in engaging with these plays and connecting with other kids who are passionate about telling stories. In that way, I think anyone who bravely decides to enter is a winner. I gained insights through guidance in the audition process, workshops and master classes that I will carry with me forever—both as an actor and in life.

To meet someone else who has been lucky enough to have this experience is to meet someone whose own voice has been strengthened by August Wilson’s words—who, no matter their background, can connect to the way Wilson’s plays capture race and class dissolving through human struggles and triumphs. One by one, to the cheers of our families, members of the community, children, babies and people at the museum who just followed their curiosity, we went up and performed our monologues.

After everyone had performed, we answered a few questions from those in the audience—many of whom had never engaged with Wilson’s work before. My hope aligns with that of Literacy Day at the California African American Museum itself: that we inspire kids and adults alike to pick up one of Wilson’s plays and read. Because if there is one thing I have learned from reading his plays and playing some of his characters, it is that his words are powerful. And so are mine. 

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