Alone on the Mark Taper Forum stage one evening in early March, Philip Patrick Bucknor performed an excerpt from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He finished and … silence. Then, explosive, roaring applause. It was a dual accolade that would be cherished by actors far more experienced than Bucknor, a high school senior, and it testified to the unexpected maturity and power of the 17-year-old’s portrayal of Bynum Walker, Joe Turner’s enigmatic “Conjure Man.” Eleven more teens took the stage that night, finalists in Center Theatre Group’s presentation of the Southern California regional August Wilson Monologue Competition. Each of the 12 students, all from local high schools, performed pieces from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 10-play Century Cycle in front of friends, family, educators, students and theatre and entertainment professionals. It was a festive occasion. CBS 2 News co-anchor Pat Harvey was the engaging Master of Ceremonies; actor/ director Phylicia Rashad greeted the audience and competitors on film, and the event included videotaped comments by the young competitors and real-life connections to Wilson’s life and work through historic photographs and film. By the evening’s end, after memorable showings by the finalists, a five-member panel of judges – Ebony Repertory Theatre founder/producer Wren Brown; actor and USC School of Dramatic Arts faculty member Anita Dashiell-Sparks; actors Kimberleigh Aarn, Robert Gossett and William Allen Young – had chosen three winners: 15-year-old Shaila Essley (first place), Bucknor (second place) and Wayne R. Mackins-Harris, 17 (third place). It wasn’t an easy decision, said Brown. “You look for stage presence, you look for vocal presence and energy, diction and clarity. And then I look for emotional clarity – an understanding of the words and character being presented. The three young people achieved those things in great fashion,” he said, “as did several others.”
CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie called the student performances “one of the great evenings in the theatre. Watching the incredible talent on the stage at the AWMC each year,” he said, “confirms for me that the future of the theatre is already in great hands. The depth of talent, the level of enthusiasm and the maturity of the artistic instincts and insights that these young artists display are awe-inspiring.” Next up for the judges’ top picks, all of whom plan to pursue theatre as a career, was a trip to New York and Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre for the AWMC national finals on May 4, vying against regional winners from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland and Seattle. The top three national winners were Moye Light and Cameron Southland, both from Atlanta, Georgia, and Jonathan German from New York.
“I feel very blessed,” Bucknor said, a few days after his regional win. “This opportunity is giving me hope.” This is the fourth year of CTG’s involvement with the competition, a nationwide event created by two of the late playwright’s close collaborators: Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre’s Artistic Director Kenny Leon and Director/Playwright Todd Kreidler. “They invited some of the theatres around the country that August had considered home to participate,” said Leslie Johnson, CTG Director of Education and Community Partnerships. She noted that Center Theatre Group’s relationship with Wilson runs deep. So far, it spans eight of Wilson’s plays: Jitney, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, the world premiere of Radio Golf, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson.
After looking at what other states were doing at the regional level “to give us inspiration to design a program that seemed suitable for Los Angeles,” Johnson said, “we really took the idea of sustaining August Wilson’s legacy as the heart of it.” High school students from throughout Southern California are eligible to enter the competition. Each participating regional theatre uses the same compendium of monologues pulled from Wilson’s plays and students may choose to perform as characters of any race or gender or age. “It’s very open,” said Johnson. “You pick a monologue that speaks to you.” “Through their investigation of the work,” observed Brown, “young people can come into another ethnic or cultural background and learn about the differences, but also about the commonalities, of the human condition.” In a preliminary round that was held in November, some 150 students auditioned to compete in this year’s Los Angeles regional AWMC; a third of those, selected by casting professionals, university professionals, directors, actors and others, advanced to the semi-finals in December. “We’re growing each year,” Johnson said. “And it’s exciting. Some of the kids have auditioned before, but the majority of them say, ‘I just thought it sounded fun and I wanted to try it.’ Or they love August Wilson’s work because it’s a chance to say some really heady things.” The dozen students chosen from the pool of semi-finalists prepared for the regional finals at the Mark Taper Forum with August Wilson program advisor and lead teaching artist Andi Chapman and other CTG mentors, with an emphasis on the ensemble nature of the work, Johnson said. “We really try to stress that, because by the time you’re a finalist, you are an ensemble, and it’s about presenting to the audience the breadth and depth of August Wilson’s work.” First place winner Essley, a sophomore and theatre major at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, agrees. “It’s weird to call them competitors,” she said of her peers, because “working with the Center Theatre Group mentors it was, ‘ok, you go up there and do an honest performance and do your best.’ It was never ‘you have to be better than everybody.’ It was the most supportive atmosphere I’ve ever been in. I would encourage everyone to try it.” In addition to the competition’s performance component, the CTG August Wilson Program, created by Johnson and her team and presented by Center Theatre Group Affiliates, also comprises a literature-based, in-school residency at four local high schools. Schools apply to be considered for this multidisciplinary, semester-long program each year by “making a case for why studying August Wilson fits into their curriculum,”