Inside the African American Experience: August Wilson Monologue Competition Comes to Dallas
Meadows School brings national competition for high schoolers to Dallas for the first time; winners to compete in NYC for final round
Semifinal round to be held on SMU campus on Monday, February 15 at 6 p.m.; open to the public
The scene: Dallas regional preliminary round of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition, held in SMU Meadows School of the Arts’ Greer Garson Theatre, January 25, 2016:
Eighty high school kids sit in red velvet theatre seats, each waiting their turn to take the stage and deliver a passionate three-minute monologue. It has taken weeks to prepare for this moment and the stakes are high: Two winners will be selected for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to compete in the national August Wilson Monologue Competition finals on May 2. Some contestants fidget in their seats; one folds her hands and prays. Two others sit perfectly still, still as rabbits hiding from the wolf.
The monologues are powerfully written, selected from a body of work by American playwright August Wilson, whose work The New York Times cites as “… a landmark in the history of black culture, of American literature and of Broadway theater.” Wilson is best known for a 10-play collection, the “Century Cycle,” with each play set in a different decade. The topics are complex, insightful, often wrenching, all centering on the struggles of African Americans in the twentieth century.
Each year, high school students across the country are invited to participate. This is the first year Dallas has entered the competition, thanks to Meadows Assistant Professor Benard Cummings. Cummings has long been a participant in the contest, having served as a judge in the New York regionals every year since its inception in 2007.
“I knew August, I love August and I know his plays,” says Cummings, who has both performed in and directed many of Wilson’s plays over the years. As a Yale School of Drama student he understudied Samuel L. Jackson in Wilson’s The Piano Lesson; last year he directed Wilson’s Radio Golf at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas.
“Wilson has such large ideas,” says Cummings, who describes the plays as erudite, intellectual and realistic. “They introduce students to Wilson’s work and aspects of African American culture over the decades, including struggles still going on today. At the same time, his plays embody the universal experience of theater, creating characters that transcend race. He’s one of the foremost American playwrights, up there with Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets.”
After a meteoric career marked by numerous Tony awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, Wilson died at age 60 in 2005. Later that year, Broadway’s Virginia Theatre was renamed in his honor. In 2007, Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta and Jujamcyn Theaters in New York established the national competition for high school students across the country.
Dallas semifinals to be held February 15; winners go on to New York
Students from 11 cities are competing this year. Participating cities in addition to Dallas include Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Greensboro, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland and Seattle.
The first round of competition in the Dallas regionals took place on January 25 at SMU Meadows’ Greer Garson Theatre. Eighty students from eight Dallas-area high schools and one arts organization from Shreveport participated: Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, Booker T. Washington, Carter, Cedar Hill, Lamar, Skyline, Thomas Jefferson and Wilmer-Hutchins high schools and Natural Charms of Arts academy.
Out of the 80 students competing in the preliminary round, 17 were selected to move on to the semifinal round, to be held Monday, February 15 at 6 p.m. at the Greer Garson Theatre.
Six high schools will be represented in the semifinals, including Booker T. Washington, Carter, Cedar Hills, Lamar, Skyline and Thomas Jefferson high schools, as well as Shreveport’s Natural Charms of Arts academy. As in previous rounds, each semifinal contestant will deliver a three-minute monologue from the body of August Wilson’s work.
Two winners will be selected to travel to New York City for the May 2 finals. In addition to competing for cash and scholarship prizes, the finalists will be treated to the new smash Broadway hit Hamilton and will meet with top industry actors. For example, recent competitors not only saw the revival production of Fences on Broadway starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, but also met the actors in an after-play “talkback” session and workshop.
Taking Meadows classroom learning into the community
Several Meadows Theatre students helped the high school competitors get ready for the competition at workshops held at Dallas Theater Center and at Lamar (Arlington ISD) and Cedar Hill (Cedar Hill ISD) high schools last November. Timothy Paul Brown, a third-year M.F.A. Theatre/Acting graduate student who worked with eight Lamar High students, says the process was gratifying on many levels.
“They benefitted in several ways,” he says. “For one, they have the opportunity to immerse themselves into August Wilson’s amazing work. Each of his plays are windows into the black experience; every character that he wrote has a powerful story to tell and these kids are getting the unique opportunity to bring their dynamic lives to life on stage.”
In addition to working with Meadows theatre students, Brown says the students gained by learning various acting techniques from experienced theatre professionals such as actor Irma P. Hall, artistic director of African American Repertory Theatre (AART), who has been in more than 40 feature films and numerous television shows. “This is priceless!” says Brown. “When I was their age, I loved working with older actors who knew more than me. These students are blessed to get one-on-one training to sharpen their acting processes. This competition is a great opportunity for them to grow as young theatre artists.”
Brown says helping the students has been a boon to him as well. “Working with the students from Lamar was a gift,” he says. “They listened to our notes and applied them to their work. The changes were absolutely amazing. And seeing those changes on stage at the prelims truly filled our hearts with joy. The students showed me that the future of theatre is in good hands.”
Larger than life
Leading up to the February 15 Dallas semifinals, SMU Meadows will continue to offer workshops to the competitors. When asked what advice he would give to the high school students, Cummings says it is important for them to embody the language and the world of the monologue. “Be bolder, be bigger, be larger, because these characters are,” he says. “Actors who get up and just recite the lines won’t connect.
“One of the best things I’ve ever heard on this is from the great acting teacher Stella Adler, who said, ‘These people are larger than you.’ For these three-minute monologues, the student needs to show the character’s whole life encapsulated: the wants, the needs, the desires.
“The theatre demands that you be larger than life.”
The Dallas regional semifinals of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition will be held on Monday, February 15, at 6 p.m. in the Greer Garson Theatre, located in the SMU Meadows School of the Arts Owen Arts Center building, 6110 Hillcrest, Dallas 75205. The public is welcome to attend at no charge. No cameras or recording equipment will be allowed during the competition.
To kick off the semifinal round, the national organizer of the event, True Colors Theatre Company Managing Director Jennifer McEwen, will speak to the audience and provide background about the competition and about August Wilson.
Judges for the February 15 semifinal round include SMU Meadows School of the Arts Artist-in-Residence Will Power and Associate Professor and Head of Acting James Crawford; AART actor and Artistic Director Irma P. Hall and actor and Executive Managing Director Regina Washington; and Dallas Theater Center Manager of Education Programs Morgana Wilborn and Manager of Community and Audience Engagement DayRon Miles. Host for the event is Dallas Theater Center Brierley Acting Company member and teaching artist Hassan El-Amin.
The Dallas competition is sponsored by SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Dallas Theater Center, African American Repertory Theatre and Soul Repertory Theater. The national competition is presented by True Colors Theatre Company of Atlanta and Jujamcyn Theaters of New York City. The national sponsor is Macy’s.
Read more about SMU Meadows Division of Theatre and Assistant Professor Benard Cummings.
Read more about the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition and keep up with the Dallas regional finalists on Facebook.
Read more about August Wilson.