Southern California teens compete to go to national August Wilson monologue contest

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August Wilson.

When he died seven years ago, critics praised African-American playwright August Wilson as a giant of American theater. Now, his followers worry that time will fade his influence.

That’s one reason L.A.'s preeminent theater organization, Center Theater Group, decided to host the Southern California Regionals of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition.

The 15 regional finalists will participate in four master classes lead by the theater group to help refine their performance skills in preparation for the March regional finals. The top three regional finalists will receive $500, $250 and $100 scholarships, as well as compete in the May finals in New York.

For several months, more than a dozen teens from across the Southland have polished their performances at a rehearsal room across the street from downtown L.A.'s Music Center. Many of these teens knew little about the playwright, let alone the power of his monologues.

"They’ve been described as arias," says Leslie Johnson, Center Theater Group director of education. "They really are these soaring moments in his plays where characters have an opportunity to bear witness."

Johnson is one of the theater staffers teaching the 15 high school students about the cycle of 10 plays that comprise Wilson's master work. Each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century.

Tenth-grader Kayla Matthews picked a monologue from the 1987 play “The Piano Lesson.” In the monologue, the main character Berniece, a widow in 1930s Pittsburgh, forcefully protects a piano that represents her family’s history.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Matthews waited on a couch reading the monologue on her iPad outside a Center Theater Group rehearsal room. The theater's casting director Erika Sellin and veteran actress Andi Chapman welcomed her to a cavernous rehearsal room.

Both gave the teenager tips about walking onto the stage and how to establish her presence on the night of the performance.

Matthews delivered the monologue. Chapman stopped to help after the student forgot her lines for the second time.

"There’s no right or wrong, it’s just truth," Chapman told her. "What the truth is for you. OK? I just want you to be truthful, that’s all I’m asking, and really talk to Avery and you’ll be fine."

Kayla Matthews knew little about August Wilson until her drama teacher at a West L.A. private school told her about the monologue contest. The theater offers the students master classes like this one, along with instruction on character study and vocal delivery. Professional actors, writers and directors help the students.

Down the hallway, some of them are deep into an enunciation exercise.

Many of the participating teens attend performing arts high schools. Johnson says the theater's goal is to create "Wilsonian soldiers."

"So that we have an army of young performers, and young theater lovers, who know about this playwright, who demand his kind of work and maybe [will] inspire a new August Wilson to rise up from the ranks of the next generation," Johnson said.

That army could include Pablo Lopez, an 11th grader at Ramon Cortines High School in downtown L.A.

Lopez says he connected with the monologue from the August Wilson play “Jitney.” A character named Youngblood doesn’t let his social class keep him down.

"He’s a worker and he’s trying to get his mark in the city," Lopez said, "and my dad, he came to the United States, he came as a teenager and he worked his way up to being a principal in LAUSD."

Wilson died nearly seven years ago, Johnson said, but he'd be happy that the plays he wrote about African-American life and struggles in the United States are read by youth of all ethnicities.

Lopez and the other students will tap into everything they’ve learned and step into the spotlight at the Mark Taper Forum Monday to deliver their August Wilson monologues.

A panel of judges that includes actors Louis Gossett Junior and Charlayne Woodard will pick three to proceed to the national competition in two months at the August Wilson Theater in New York City.

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