Monday night, teenagers from all over the country will compete on Broadway for one of the most prestigious theater awards for young actors in the country. Since 2007, the August Wilson Monologue Competition has brought high schoolers together through the words of one of the premier American playwrights of the last 50 years.
Competitors draw from Wilson's "Century Cycle," a series of 10 plays — each set in a different decade — which gives an uncompromising look into the black experience of 20th century America.
Shaila Essley of Chino Hills placed first at the regional competition in Los Angeles with her performance of a monologue from Wilson’s play, "King Hedley II." The monologue is by the character Tonya — a young, pregnant African-American woman who’s contemplating having an abortion as she looks at the lives of mothers in her neighborhood whose sons are being killed.
Prior to leaving for New York, Shaila came to the Frame studios along with Wren Brown, a judge for the regional competition and the artistic director of the Ebony Repertory Theater in L.A. We talked about performing on Broadway, loving theater and using YouTube to study up on real drama.
Shaila, how long have you been a dramatic person?
Wow, ever since I was little. I remember playing house with my friends, and it used to be like a novella, a really dramatic and overwhelming situation. [laughs] So I've been doing it ever since I was 2.
And when did you realize you didn't just enjoy it but you were actually good at it?
Oh, I was 8 and I got a lead role in a Christmas play. I memorized the lines like that, it was over 100 lines but it just came so naturally to me, and it was so much fun. Having all the attention on me and knowing that, for that one moment in time, I could help someone and make their life better? That's when I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
The play from which you're reading, "King Hedley II," is a very dark, very complex play. Some people would say it's Wilson's most troubling play. As a 15-year-old trying to get into this monologue and this character that's in a very dark place, what are the rituals or the processes you go through to get yourself there?
I picked this monologue because it's very relevant today. Not just black men, but men period are being killed, and it's the plight of every mother. So I looked on the Internet and watched videos of mothers asking people to find the killer of their son, and also I pulled from family experiences. Those things helped me get into it, but it was not an easy process.
Wren, how important is the August Wilson Monologue Competition in identifying and promoting young people who have talent and can go on to do great things?
It's vitally important, because August Wilson is one of the greatest dramatists this country has ever produced, and literacy is so vitally important. It's not just about basic reading, it's emotional literacy, being able to convey and communicate, not repressing or sublimating that capacity to say something. We have to communicate as people, and when we're wonderful communicators and illuminators, the world is a better place.
In terms of the competition itself, how competitive is it, and is going to New York like entering the big time? How many other kids will be there?
It's a huge competition, and it's huge just to get out of the regional finals. There are 12 regional finalists, and all of them have strains of being exquisite, so to get down to three was really arduous for all of us judges. And then you go to New York City and you have people out of Atlanta, Portland — hundreds of kids from all over the country converging on New York City to perform on Broadway.
The regional finals take place in smaller theaters, and then you go into that Broadway house where "Jersey Boys" is playing, it's 500 to 600 seats larger so you have to project differently, and you have to bring a lot of different things to bear. Yes, it is the big time.
And Shaila, what are you thinking about as you prepare to go to New York?
I'm just so excited and I'm thinking about how I can take it to the next level and still keep doing what I'm doing. I'm not trying to re-create what I did at the regional finals, but instead take it to the next level and do something that's even better. Maybe I'll find something new within the monologue that will spark something in me, a new emotion or a different way to say a word or line, just to give it some new nuances.