The Seattle Repertory Theater boasts a close working relationship with the late playwright August Wilson, having produced all ten plays in his Century Cycle. However the Rep was not participating, until this year, in a national event that furthers Wilson’s legacy by putting high school students directly into the lives of his characters: the fifth August Wilson Monologue Competition.
Starting last fall and proceeding through workshops and semi-finals on February 26th, the regional component concludes Tuesday (March 8) at 7:30 p.m. when three out of ten local high school students will advance to the August Wilson Monologue Competition finals in New York City May 7-9. Tuesday’s winners will win cash prizes and a trip to New York to compete against finalists from Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York.
Although the students will be attempting to embody characters created by August Wilson, the real goal is to introduce his work to students who may be required to read Shakespeare before graduation, but not learn about America’s pre-eminent playwright, Wilson.
Seattle was home to the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the last 15 years of his life, and it was where he wrote the majority of his Century Cycle plays. The August Wilson Monologue Competition was founded in 2007 by long-time Wilson collaborators Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler of True Colors Theater Company. Their media statement cites Kreidler, “The monologue competition offers students of all races the opportunity to inhabit the lives and speak the words of these vital, lively characters.”
That description doesn’t do justice to the sight of high school students, strangers and classmates alike, doing warm-up exercises in a utilitarian downstairs room at the Rep on a frigid Saturday before being delivered to the staff judges for a three-minute shot at advancement. “We’re the guinea pigs,” Director of Education Andrea Allen claimed, referring both to Seattle Rep’s first year of participation and screening the pool of students (40 before snow, ice, and nerves reduced it to 22). To the students taken to the conference room, the four judges held the power to reject them, or put them on the path to an audience and celebrity judges at the August Wilson Theater in May.
The Seattle Rep has a vigorous educational component. Scott Koh is Schools Program Manager. “August Wilson is not taught in the schools,” he said bluntly, “but he should be.” Among many educational opportunities, Rep staff conduct in-house workshops, provide teacher training, and have a program called “Five Things You Should Know about August Wilson.” For the 2010-2011 academic year, funding and teacher interest was in place for Seattle Rep to stage the regional competition necessary to send students to the national level.
All of August Wilson’s characters are African-American, which is not the case of the students. The Rep’s Koh, who is Korean-American, admits he wouldn’t mind seeing a white or Asian student “hit it out of the park.” Participating students were all required to attend a workshop or have one-on-one coaching. “White, Asian, African American ... I’m not expecting technique; we’re not really judging these students. I’m looking for emotional connection,” Koh said. Since his goal is educational the student with the least firsthand experience may have the most to learn from standing in a particular character’s shoes.
Dena Levitin will be one of four judges at the finals competition on Tuesday night. She was Mr. Wilson’s assistant for eight-and-a-half years and worked through last summer on his estate. She prepared summaries of all the plays and compiled potential monologues for competition as a volunteer. Both she and Mr. Wilson’s widow Constanza Romero (a costume designer at Seattle Rep, judge at last year’s national competition, and scheduled to deliver remarks at Tuesday’s program) have probably seen more casts and performances of Mr. Wilson’s plays than anyone else. Levitin call the competition, “A wonderful opportunity to keep promoting Mr. Wilson’s artistry” and is keeping an open mind about the 10 students who will perform their monologues on the Leo K. stage Tuesday night.
Struggling to score students on a rubric at the semi-finals, the Rep's Allen wondered aloud what Wilson would make of the varied students interpreting characters such as Rose and Troy, both from “Fences,” which won Broadway’s Tony Award and a 1985 Pulitzer. “August made his views of cross-cultural casting quite known,” she said, her expression signaling the strong opposition he would have had to casting a white person in an African American role.
As one who has seen firsthand almost all the casting choices for Wilson’s work in the last 15 years, Levitin noted the context of the competition is very different than actually casting even one of his plays for the stage. “In this context I think he’d be tickled,” she said. “I can imagine him smiling from ear to ear to see these performances.” As she said diplomatically, “This region is not the most racially integrated in the country. I will be very interested to see the student’s character choices.”
Dylan Zucati (Sterling from “Radio Golf”), a sophomore from the Tacoma School of the Arts, admitted in the warm-up room that he felt awkward with many of the monologue choices. Then he read “Radio Golf” and every monologue struck him as universal. Unlike students who learned about the competition from their teacher, he saw an announcement in the lobby while attending a play.
Aubrey Taylor (Ma Rainey, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), one of three African American students who are all from Timberline High School in Lacey and advancing to the Seattle finals, was delighted to learn that in August Wilson, “There’s actually black people writing for black people.” Meanwhile Madeline Davis, a junior from Seattle’s Roosevelt High School and herself an emerging playwright, crossed gender lines in her choice of monologue, portraying Becker in “Jitney.”
Unlike Levitin and fellow judges dancer Chic Street Man and Pacific Northwest Ballet faculty member Sonia Dawkins, I’ve seen some of the students perform. When they nail a character, they are no longer a junior from South Kitsap or a senior from Garfield; they are Black Mary or Troy. They make the emotional connection that Koh seeks, and Levitin will experience — then give a timid “thank you,” leaving the guinea pigs to recover.
The premise that three of these 10 scarily talented semi-finalists will next compete at the August Wilson Theater is thrilling. (That Tuesday’s competition and program is also free and open to the public is also thrilling).
Once the finalists are chosen, they become the Seattle Rep’s entries in the national competition. “We will work their butts off,” Koh said, with reference to the coaching the Rep will provide before the finals. “We want to win this thing.”
Barely 100 feet from both the conference room and the small stage where the students will compete, August Wilson still presides from the magical doorway that transforms Republican Street into August Wilson Way, reminding passersby that levitthe world is a stage, and Seattle Rep is a portal.
If you go: Seattle Finals for the August Wilson Monologue Competition, 7:30 p.m., Tuesday (March 8), Leo K. Theater at Seattle Repertory, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle. Information and a link to free ticket reservations can be found here.