Local high-school students to give voice to the African-American experience Feb. 15 at SMU Meadows

Seventeen local and regional high school students will be at SMU Monday, Feb. 15, to see which two can best echo the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

DALLAS (SMU) – Seventeen local and regional high school students will be at SMU Monday, Feb. 15, to see which two can best echo the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, whose works champion the African American experience while reflecting what one critic called “frustration, nostalgia, anger and dream.”

Remembering August Wilson

Students in Auguswt Wilson Monologue Competition
Sixteen of the 17 semifinalists from local and regional high schools who are competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition at SMU Feb. 15.

“Art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired. Before I am anything, a man or playwright, I am an African-American,” August Wilson once told The New York Times – though the path to finding his own value and identity wasn’t easy.

Born in 1945 to a German immigrant father and African American mother, Wilson grew up in a multi-ethnic section of Pittsburgh, dropping out of school and educating himself in the public library while absorbing the stories and voices of those around him.

He navigated a host of odd jobs before finding his calling at the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater in the late 1960s. He embraced the black identity movement and fight for civil rights and social justice, choosing “to take custodianship of the Negro experience” in the poems and plays he began writing, telling a writer, “the one thing we did not have as black Americans was a mythology.”

August Wilson
August Wilson

The first play to hit Broadway was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which set him on a path to critical acclaim. Wilson’s best-known works include “Fences,” about an illiterate, embittered garbage collector working in Pittsburgh in the ’50s, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and starred James Earl Jones. It earned $11 million in one year, as well as a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards. Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” about siblings in a dispute over a treasured family heirloom during the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990 and was nominated for Tony Awards in five categories.

After a career that won him worldwide acclaim, Wilson died at 60 from cancer in October 2005. Shortly after his death the Virginia Theatre in New York City was renamed for him by its owners, Jujamcyn Theaters. In 2007 Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta joined Jujamcyn Theaters to establish the national competition. Since that time Playbill has recognized Leon as “arguably Broadway’s leading African American director.”

“I’m hoping these young people get inspired to live their dreams — to do what they want, to take the full advantage of America,” Leon says in “The Start of Dreams,” a documentary about the August Wilson Monologue competition.

Wilson’s plays are:

  • 1979: “Jitney” (set in 1977)
  • 1982: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (set in 1927)
  • 1983: “Fences” (set in 1957)
  • 1984: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (set in 1911)
  • 1986: “The Piano Lesson” (set in 1936)
  • 1990: “Two Trains Running” (set in 1969)
  • 1995: “Seven Guitars” (set in 1948)
  • 2001: “King Hedley II” (set in 1985)
  • 2003: “Gem of the Ocean” (set in 1904)
  • 2005: “Radio Golf” (set in 1997)

During the regional August Wilson Monologue Competition, students from Booker T. Washington, Carter, Cedar Hills, Lamar, Skyline and Thomas Jefferson High Schools, as well as Shreveport’s Natural Charms of Arts academy, will be performing two- to three-minute monologues from Wilson’s “Century Cycle” – 10 plays that include his career-making “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and the Broadway-blockbuster “Fences.”

The free public event, set for 6 to 8 p.m. in the Owen Arts Center’s Greer Garson Theatre, is sponsored by SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts with support from the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), African American Repertory Theater (AART) and Soul Rep Theatre Company.

Dallas semifinalists will travel to New York City April 30–May 3 for a weekend devoted to Wilson, competing May 2 in the playwright’s namesake theatre with winners from 10 other major cities. During their time there, the competitors will get to explore Broadway and the city, see the smash hit “Hamilton” and interact with inspirational actors who in years past have included Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. They will also compete for scholarships and cash prizes.

Benard Cummings
Benard Cummings

This is the first year for Dallas and SMU to host the regional finals thanks to SMU Meadows Assistant Professor Benard Cummings, who teaches theatre and acting classes, and has been a judge for the New York regional August Wilson Monologue Competition since its inception in 2007.

While encouraging the students “to be bolder, be bigger, be larger, because Wilson’s characters are,” Cummings has seen the transformative power of the “erudite, intellectual and realistic” work of Wilson (1945-2005), whom he calls “one of the foremost American playwrights, up there with Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets.”

Wilson’s plays “introduce students to his work and aspects of African American culture over the decades, including struggles still going on today,” Cummings says. “At the same time, his plays embody the universal experience of theater, creating characters that transcend race.”

Booker T. Washington student Bonnie Scott agrees. “August Wilson writes about real life in a way that’s empowering,” she says. In learning her monologue from “Seven Guitars,” “I see a woman who lost who she was, but regained her pride and life and strength. Everyone can relate to that.”

Cummings has another interest in seeing the event succeed. He knew Wilson personally, and has performed in and directed many of his plays. Armed with a B.F.A. from SMU, Cummings attended Yale School of Drama, understudying with Samuel L. Jackson in Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” And last year he directed Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at the Wyly Theatre.

For months leading up to the semifinals (the first event was Jan. 25), Cummings helped involve some 80 students from eight area high schools and the Shreveport acting academy. He also oversaw an acting workshop at the DTC in November, which included professionals from there and AART, and offered workshops led by SMU faculty and students at area high schools.

Working alongside both Cummings and the students was a gift, says Timothy Paul Brown, a third-year M.F.A. theatre/acting graduate student at SMU. “They listened to our notes and applied them to their work. The changes were absolutely amazing. And seeing those changes on stage at the preliminary event truly filled our hearts with joy,” he says. “The students showed me that the future of theater is in good hands.”

The semifinalists are Taya Haynes (David W. Carter High School); Ji’Taijah Carter, Reagin Morrison, Amiya Oney and Jeffrey Pope (Cedar Hill High School); Mary Burkett, Leneedra Cornelious, Anecia Forbes, Zalayna Jenkins, Alexa Luckey, Bonnie Scott and Kobe Williams

(Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts); Jadyn Tchandia (Thomas Jefferson High School); Stakiah Washington (Lamar High School); Kierra Jones (Skyline High School); and Camryn Jackson and Jaylan Murff (Natural Charms of Arts, Shreveport, La.).

Judges for the Dallas semifinal competition include SMU Meadows School of the Arts Artist-in-Residence Will Power and Associate Professor and Head of Acting James Crawford; AART actor/Artistic Director Irma P. Hall and actor/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.

For more details about the Feb. 15 competition, see https://www.smu.edu/Meadows/NewsAndEvents/News/2016/160202-AugustWilsonMonologueCompetition and follow the related Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AWMCDallas/.

For more about the national competition, sponsored by True Colors Theatre Company of Atlanta and Jujamcyn Theaters of New York City, with support from Macy’s, see http://augustwilsonmonologue.com.

— Victoria Winkelman and Mary Guthrie contributed to this story.