August Wilson or zombies, the kids are alright

Student monologues from Wilson's great plays, and a sprightly Undead musical at OCT, reveal a generation of actors on the rise

The kids are alright.

I’m thinking of the kids (the verging-on-adults, really) onstage at Portland Center Stage Monday night for the regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition: fifteen of them, coolly and beautifully delivering short monologues drawn from Wilson’s brilliant Century Cycle of plays to a packed and cheering house.

And I’m thinking of the kids in the Tuesday morning audience at the Winningstad Theatre, watching a cast of mostly high-school actors in a performance of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s world-premiere musical, Zombie in Love.

 Zombie first, on the theory that when you’re Undead pretty much everything breaks against you, so go ahead and cut to the front of the line for a change. No, no, I insist.

Any show that opens with a chorus line of worms confronting the audience Sweeney Todd-style deserves your full attention. “Would you like to hear a story/ that’s particularly gory?” the six-worm chorus chants, waving its little hand-puppet heads to the beat.

Why, yes. Don’t mind if I do.

Mortimer (Blake Peebles) and the worms in "Zombie." Photo: Owen Carey

Mortimer (Blake Peebles) and the worms in “Zombie.” Photo: Owen Carey

Zombie in Love, based on a children’s picture book by Kelly DiPucchio with art by Scott Campbell (he’s known as Scott C in comic-book circles), is a sweet, funny, and playful romp through the pitfalls of high school, with a little Hairspray in its heart and a little Munsters in its soul. It’s the after-school special you probably didn’t see when you were a kid, because, after all, how many after-school specials addressed the particular problems of the Undead?

Not that they’re too different from the problems of your ordinary run of nerds, geeks, and misfits. Oh, sure, not everybody has to deal with fingers flying off, or hands detaching when they’re being shaken, or smelling like last year’s compost dipped in sludge, or trailing a few feet of intestines out of their shirt. But, you know, there’s the in-crowd, and there’s the out-crowd. And when you’re out but you want in, life at school can be tough.

There’s not a lot of mystery to Zombie in Love. It’s a cartoon in the rotting flesh, and you know that eventually Mortimer –­ a nice kid, even if he’s, well, dead – is going to find a date for the Cupid’s Ball. You know the cliques are going to be pretty nasty at first, and Mortimer’s going to run into a lot of rejection: after all, pretty much everything that’s important to him takes place in the sometimes brutal bedlam of what we used to call the Blackboard Jungle. You even have a pretty good idea that once he triumphs and accepts himself for who he is, the cool kids are going to come around to thinking he’s pretty cool, too. That’s OK. In its own weird way Zombie in Love’s a romantic comedy, and that’s the way romantic comedies work.

Michelle Elliott, who wrote the musical’s book and consistently clever lyrics (“I’m super-smart for being dead/ the brains I ate went to my head”) works nicely within the hour-long constraints of the show’s running time, although another 10 or 15 minutes might have allowed a little more plot and character development. The dialogue comes down a little hard on the anti-bullying theme (eleven times out of ten, it’s better to show than tell) but on the whole, Zombie in Love is sweet and wryly funny and as light as a zombie tale can be. Danny Larsen’s songs are in a pleasant light pop-rock, um, vein (the crisp music direction is by Darcy White), and as usual at OCT, things look terrific: the tongue-in-cheek school/slash/graveyard set by Marcella Crowson and Chris Rousseau, sassy costumes by Emily Horton, and some deft monster-mash-y choreography by Sara Mishler Martins. Crowson also directs, with a light swift hand.

Even zombies get to dance. Photo: Owen Carey

Even zombies get to dance. Photo: Owen Carey

But what really makes Zombie spring to life is its talented young cast, and most crucially Blake Peebles as the super-nerdy Mortimer, who quite literally can’t keep it together: body parts keep dripping out and falling off. He lurches onstage all green and plaid and hunchbacked and awkward, a litany of humiliation and mistakes, yet he conveys a consistently appealing sweetness that belies his looks: you can just tell this kid’s a diamond in the putrid rough. His comic timing is spot-on, driving the action and setting the mood. Madison Wray costars as Mildred, the high school’s only other zombie student, and, yes, you’re right: there’s a Cupid’s Ball in her future. Javon Carter swings casually from bully to sort-of buddy; dancer/actor Nate Golden busts a nifty move as one of the students; and the ensemble of Golden, Madeleine Delaplane, Thom Hilton, Lindsey Koehler, Katherine Pen, and Madison Thompson, play the chorus and shift easily from role to role. Zombies win. And in this quirky, sort-of afterschool special, eventually, so does everyone else.

*

 The stakes were higher Monday night at Portland Center Stage, which was packed and rowdy for the regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, a national program that’s just completing its first year in Portland. Sponsored here by the August Wilson Red Door Project, it’s been a schoolyear-long immersion for high school students from across the metro area, most but not all of them black, to delve into the rigors and very adult poetics of Wilson’s great cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th century: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Jitney, King Hedley II, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, and others.

Monologue winners, from left: Steele, Edwards, Salter. Photo: Wade Owens

Monologue winners, from left: Steele, Edwards, Salter. Photo: Wade Owens

Fifteen regional finalists performed on the theater’s Main Stage, digging into the raw and illuminating language of Wilson’s dramas, grappling with issues of race and feminism and self-identity in frank language that probably wouldn’t hit the stage in most of their high-school theater productions. One of the great things about the competition is that it treats the young actors as adults, and they rise to the occasion.

The evening felt like something of a community celebration, too. A lot of high-school kids were there, cheering their friends on, and families and community leaders. The place was dizzy with theater people, including much of the cast of Artists Rep’s current show The Motherfucker with the Hat, which was directed by Red Door and Monologue organizer Kevin Jones (who was also the evening’s master of ceremonies). And a big contingent from NBC’s hit monster-drama Grimm was on hand, partly because their costar Russell Hornsby, who plays the detective Hank on the show, worked a lot with the contestants. During a break while the judges were deliberating, the jazz pianist Janice Scroggins and singer Marilyn Keller, in a long Ma Rainey-style gown, delivered the blues.

But the evening belonged to the young actors, who had spent months working not just on the monologues, but also on studying the plays, thinking about how the plays connect with their own lives, approaching large social and cultural issues through the discipline of the stage, and developing their performance skills with the help of top-notch coaches. For black kids, it was a chance to speak theatrically in a voice familiar to their own. For the white kids, it was a chance to learn about black culture from the inside. It sounds trite and namby-pamby, but in this case it was true: it was a competition, but everybody won.

"Grimm" star Russell Hornsby works with contestant Sekai Edwards. Photo: August Wilson Red Door Project

“Grimm” star Russell Hornsby works with contestant Sekai Edwards. Photo: August Wilson Red Door Project

The three top scorers won cash prizes and also will go on to compete in the national finals in May in New York, at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. First place winner was Lauren Steele, a junior at Jefferson High School. Second place went to Taylor Salter, a sophomore at Metropolitan Learning Center. Third-place winner was Sekai Edwards, a sophomore at Jeff. Steele also won a two-year scholarship at the Portland Actors Conservatory, worth $21,000. Other contestants on Monday, from high schools including Franklin, Clackamas, Rex Putnam, Grant, New Urban, New Avenues for Youth, Cleveland, and Roosevelt, were Arianna Jacobs, Blake Dunbar, Hailey Kilgore, Jordan Henderson, Kyra Orr, Medeline Kitzmiller, Mahatma Poe, Malcolm Jones, Marquasia Trent, Matthew Hughes, Quinci Freeman-Lytle, and Ryan Townsley.

And that’s education. On Monday night we met the future, learning from the past, and maybe even moving beyond it.

 *

Zombie in Love continues weekdays with performances for school audiences, with weekend public shows through March 23. Ticket and schedule details are here. At the 5 p.m. show this Saturday, March 8, cartoonists Mike Russell, Lucy Bellwood, Dylan Meconis, and Terri  Nelson will be on hand to “live sketch” during the show; they’ll be joined in comics journalism by Scott C, illustrator of the Zombie in Love book. The resulting sketches will be on display in the lobby, and OCT will also post them online.

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