August Wilson Monologue Competition

Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.


Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.


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


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.


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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