Talkin’ August Wilson: the monologue tales

Thanks to the Red Door Project, Portland's love affair with the great playwright spreads to a national competition for young actors

Artists Rep's "Seven Guitars" last year was one in a series  of popular revivals of August Wilson plays in Portland. From left: Michael J. Asberry, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lance McQueen, Gayle Samuels. Photo: Owen Carey

Artists Rep’s “Seven Guitars” last year was one in a series of popular revivals of August Wilson plays in Portland. From left: Michael J. Asberry, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lance McQueen, Gayle Samuels. Photo: Owen Carey

“They never made Emancipation what they say it was. People say, – Jesus turn the water into wine what you look like telling him it was the wrong kind? Hell, maybe it is the wrong kind! If you gonna do it … do it right! They wave the law on one end and hit you with a Billy club on the other. I told myself I can’t just sit around and collect dog shit while the people drowning. The people drowning in sorrow and grief. That’s a mighty big ocean. They got the law tied to their toe. Every time they try and swim the law pull them under. It’s dangerous out here. People walking around hunting each other. If you ain’t careful you could lose your eye or your arm. I seen that. I seen a man grab hold to a fellow and cut off his arm. Cut it off at the shoulder. The man looked down saw his arm gone and started crying. After that he more dangerous with that one arm than the other man is with two. He got less to lose. There’s a lot of one-arm men walking around.”

– Solly Two Shoes
– “Gem of the Ocean,” August Wilson

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What is August Wilson’s legacy?

So much of the language that black people hear, the actor and director Kevin Jones commented Monday evening, belongs to someone else. But “the language of August Wilson is specific to our culture.”

It’s in the music, the cadence, the repetitions, the parables, the storytelling – a language that is English but a distinct kind of English, grown from a distinct cultural soil. And it’s the sound of the language, coupled with the stories being told – the grit and rhythm and singing of the thing – that makes Wilson’s ten-play cycle of dramas about African American life in the 20th century one of the great theatrical achievements of the century. In such rich and startling dramas as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Wilson established himself as a literary giant to join the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Lorraine Hansberry. “He provided a gateway for many African American actors to thrive,” Jones noted.

AWMC-logo-final-color-291x300Jones, one of the founders of the August Wilson Red Door Project, was speaking in the little theater at Self Enhancement Inc., the North Portland center for African American kids and young adults, about the August Wilson Monologue Competition. It’s an innovative national program, begun in 2007 by Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company and director Kenny Leon, that concludes each year with national finals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. Portland is the eighth city to join the competition, following Atlanta and Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

The Portland regional – open basically to anyone close enough to get to the workshops and preliminary competitions, mostly at SEI – are for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders of all races. Red Door hopes to add 9th graders next year. Fifteen regional finalists will be chosen from an expected 40 or more applicants, and they’ll undergo rigorous group and individual training before three are chosen at the regional finals next March to go on to nationals in May 2014. All contestants will choose from a list of monologues, several from each of Wilson’s plays, compiled by the national organization. Solly Two Kings’ ramble above from “Gem of the Ocean” about the one-arm man is just one example.

For Portland teens, the timing seems ideal. Wilson’s plays have been enjoying a renaissance in town, at Portland Playhouse, Artists Rep and elsewhere, and the Red Door Project – begun by Jones and his partner Lesli Mones – has been using the Wilson productions as a focus for its activist approach to the city’s racial ecology. SEI, with its focus on young black Portlanders, seems an ideal partner. And Monday’s meeting was with educational leaders and activists who can help spread the word about the competition and maybe get it and Wilson’s plays linked into school curricula. Not all of the students who take part are going to end up with acting careers – most probably won’t – but all are likely to gain leadership skills, and a few will join a theater world that always needs fresh talent.

Actor Victor Mack, who’ll be working with contestants in a series of workshops, told the gathering about getting an audition to take over a role in Wilson’s best-known play, “Fences,” on Broadway. He was fresh out of college and had just moved to New York, with $50 in his pocket – enough to buy a little food, but not enough to get a ticket to a show. He didn’t know the play, didn’t know the character, didn’t get the role. “I really should’ve gone to see the play,” he recalled wryly. Afterwards, a friend gave him enough money to see the show, and his education began. Kids who do the monologue competition will have a head start.

You can learn more about America by reading or seeing and really thinking about Wilson’s plays than by taking a years’ worth of standard high school history classes. And in Portland, where arts education has been cut to the bone – never mind the recently passed but widely maligned arts-education tax, which may end up having little impact in the classrooms – programs like the Wilson monologue competition help fill a gaping hole. It’s a small step. But it could be just the start of something big.

NOTE:

Students and parents can find details about applications, requirements, and schedules for the competition here. Initial applications are due by November 4. You can download application forms and copies of the selected monologues.

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