The August Wilson Monologue Competition Southern California Regional Finals is a one-night-only event, but it is six months in the making for the student artists onstage at the Mark Taper Forum—and is part of Center Theatre Group’s decades-long commitment to legendary playwright August Wilson’s work.
On February 29, 12 local high schoolers performed monologues from Wilson’s American Century Cycle of plays (one for each decade of the 1900s) for a full house of friends, family, Center Theatre Group supporters, and members of the Los Angeles theatre community. In under three minutes each, Joey Aquino, Blake Brewer, Samuel Christian, Arcadia Eckmayer, Rhenzy Feliz, Madison Gallus, Mylan Johnson, Marjorie McNary, Angel Nieves, Max Toubes, Damaris Vizvett, and Aryana Williams conveyed an astonishing range of emotions, from betrayal and outrage to joy and tenderness.
“The August Wilson Monologue Competition is so important for all young people, because August Wilson is one of our great American playwrights,” said Anne Bruner, President of Center Theatre Group Affiliates, which sponsors the August Wilson Program. The American Century Cycle is “historically important and moving and timeless in many ways. And it’s part of our heritage as Americans,” added Bruner.
This year, many students got their first introduction to that heritage in the early fall, when Center Theatre Group held orientation workshops for all August Wilson Monologue Competition participants for the first time, offering everyone audition tips and advice on choosing a monologue. “We are pleased and proud of the orientation workshops, which deepened the learning experience and helped students feel more confident going into the auditions,” said Center Theatre Group Director of Education and Community Partnerships Leslie K. Johnson. “It made the process and Center Theatre Group feel more familiar.”
August Wilson is a wonderful catalyst for young people to talk about the things that are important to them and be heard.
Preliminary auditions followed a few weeks later, drawing nearly 150 students from across the region, all of whom received feedback from the judges whether or not they were among the 58 students who advanced to the semi-finals. After a workshop and another round of auditions, the group was winnowed down to 12 students, who embarked on a two-month-long journey to the finals together. Over 16 hours of workshops, they received one-on-one coaching in a variety of stage techniques, including an intense voice workshop onstage at the Taper, text analysis, and character study. Students also worked extensively as an ensemble, learning how to collaborate closely and support each other as they moved to the Finals.
“What I’m most proud of is that they picked very difficult texts,” said Program Advisor Andi Chapman, who guided the students throughout the process. “I was very impressed with their fearlessness going after their version of the story but still being in the context of the plays. I thought they worked really hard.”
That hard work was very much in evidence at the Taper, as all 12 performers threw their bodies, voices, and hearts into Wilson’s words. After 12 extraordinary performances,Damaris Vizvett was named the first-place finalist for her monologue as Vera in Wilson’s Seven Guitars, Samuel Christian took second place (as Elmore in King Hedley II), and Aryana Williams came in third (as Louise in Seven Guitars). The top two performers will travel to New York later this spring to perform onstage alongside students from seven other cities around the country at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway.
“Every year with this program, I’m reminded of how much young people need creativity and opportunities to express themselves,” said Johnson. “August Wilson is a wonderful catalyst for young people to talk about the things that are important to them and be heard. I’m so proud that we have this program to help them be young artists and find their place in the world.”
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad, plays the Mark Taper Forum August 31–October 16, 2016. It is the ninth of the 10 plays of The American Century Cycle to appear on our stages.