2013-2014 Season, 50th Anniversary Season, Education, Featured

An August Wilson Weekend: The Highlights

First trip to Times Square!
First trip to Times Square!

The following post was written by one of our chaperones to the 2014 August Wilson Monologue Competition, Communications Assistant Rose Woodbury.

Wow! What an amazing whirlwind of a weekend we just had in New York City. I had the joy of accompanying Seattle’s August Wilson Monologue Competition finalists Alexis Baldridge, Josiah Townsend, and Jazzy Ducay to nationals with co-chaperone Zoe Wilson. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many places, met so many famous and talented artists, and been so inspired in a 72-hour period. (And I wasn’t even performing!)

Our weekend started when we met at the airport last Saturday at 5:30 a.m. and flew to a small boutique hotel in Times Square. The 45 minute ride from JFK airport to the hotel was full of oohs and aahs and “Oh.My.God!”; it was our students’ first time in the Big Apple!

That night all of the national finalists went out for Thai food, and we met groups from Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Portland, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Most of the students had been working on their monologues for at least five months. The air was filled with anticipatory excitement.

The next day we got a tour of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a venue known for nurturing African American performers from James Brown to Lauryn Hill. In Apollo’s studio space, the students had an opportunity to put on an impromptu talent show. They all rubbed the “Tree of Hope” before they performed, a long-standing tradition among Harlem’s “Amateur Night” performers (such as 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald!).

Alexis meets Dule Hill at the After Midnight talkback.
Alexis meets Dule Hill at the After Midnight talkback.

Then we watched a spectacular performance of recent Tony-nominated musical After Midnight, starring Dule Hill and Vanessa Williams. After the show the cast joined us for an exclusive talkback with the students. “What is important is that you ignite your passion,” they said. “Remember, there is no one in the world like you.”

That evening, we headed over to a studio space to chat with Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler, two of August Wilson’s closest collaborators. (Fun facts: Kenny was just nominated for a Tony for directing A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington. Todd just wrote a new musical called Holler If You Hear Me which is based on Tupac Shakur’s music.) After Wilson died, Kenny created the monologue competition to keep his legacy alive. “Dreams without goals are just dreams,” said Kenny. On the walk home after eating delicious New York pizza, Alexis said, “I feel so loved.”

Monday was show day. We kicked it off with breakfast at Wilson’s old “spot,” a diner called Cafe Edison. (In Seattle, Wilson was known to frequent The Mecca on Queen Anne Ave.) That night, 16 students from eight cities delivered powerful performances. Of course, Zoe and I were especially proud of Alexis (Ma Rainey from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Josiah (Memphis from Two Trains Running), who had auditioned for the competition in years past and worked incredibly hard to make it to that Broadway stage. Then, eight third place finalists presented a montage of their pieces, which was directed by actor/director Hilda Willis. Jazzy gave a phenomenal performance of Becker from Jitney (perhaps the first-ever gender-bending performance at nationals, but don’t quote me) and even played her ukelele on stage!

From left: Jazzy, Alexis, and Josiah after three great performances! Each finalist received all 10 plays in August Wilson's Century cycle.
From left: Jazzy, Alexis, and Josiah after three great performances! Each finalist received all 10 plays in August Wilson’s Century cycle.

Then, before the winners were announced, Kenny said he had a surprise guest. When Denzel Washington walked out the audience stood up in amazement. “That feeling you have to do good, and to perform or do whatever else moves you,” he said to the students huddled around him, “is God’s way of telling you that it’s yours, and all you have to do is claim it.” To top it all off, Denzel gave each student a $1000 scholarship!

The winners were announced quickly: Atiauna Grant from Atlanta, Robert Upton from Chicago, and Ashley Herbert from Boston. Seattle hasn’t placed at nationals since we joined the competition four years ago, and I went into the trip knowing we had a great shot, hoping this might be our year. At the end though, after seeing the way the weekend empowered 24 amazing kids who did not necessarily feel empowered before, I realized that this competition is so not about the competition.

On the way back to Seattle, Jazzy said, “Last night I felt special for the first time in my life.” That summed it up for me, because I know that when you empower bright, creative kids, beautiful things are bound to happen.

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