The following post was written by Education Intern Sarah Menke.
Before my internship at Seattle Repertory Theatre, I had read two works by August Wilson: his most famous play, Fences, and his address at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group National Conference entitled, “The Ground on Which I Stand.” I read both of these pieces in college; if you were to ask me in high school who August Wilson was, I would not have been able to tell you. That is why one of the most treasured projects of my internship was working with high school students who participated in the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
My work with the program began in October when Interim Education Manager, Zoe Wilson, and I traveled to schools all over Seattle to recruit students to sign up for the competition. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had never heard of August Wilson in high school. Despite the fact that Wilson had spent the last part of his life in Seattle and considered this city to be his home, the high school theatre classrooms that I visited rarely touched his work. The Century Cycle, the canon of ten plays spanning the 20th century written by Wilson, is a challenging body of work to read, study, and perform. But as I watched students grapple with these texts and take ownership of them, it became clear to me that theatre artists and educators must carry on August Wilson’s legacy.
August Wilsons’ words had a significant but different impact on Seattle Repertory Theatre’s two finalists. Amir Matheney is a sixteen-year-old African American young man from Olympia. This was his first year participating in the competition, and when I met him at preliminaries in February, he was nervous and unsure. Despite his fears, he made it to the Seattle Finals and went on to win 1st place. Throughout his preparations for the New York Finals, he expressed the unbelievable value of Wilson’s work in his life. For Amir, these words were deeply personal, and he was given the opportunity to embody a character to whom he could genuinely connect.
Rachel Kaftan, on the other hand, was portraying a character who was quite different than herself. Rachel is a seventeen-year-old white young woman; she played Tonya, a thirty-five-year old African American woman. In order to play Tonya truthfully, Rachel had to walk in the shoes of someone with circumstances and struggles far different from her own. Although it was challenging at times, Rachel said that this competition gave her an insight into the black experience she couldn’t possibly get day to day. She took home the 2nd place title.
Last week, Amir and Rachel returned from the National Competition in New York. Neither of them won, but they did have the experience of a lifetime. This competition celebrates the thoughts, words, and stories that emerged from the brilliant mind of August Wilson. But most importantly, it fosters the next generation of artists who will carry on and bring his work to an ever-widening audience. These young people recognize August Wilson’s Century Cycle as vital to the theatrical cannon. How different would theatre–or the world–look like if students were afforded the opportunity to speak their truth or to greatly empathize from the moment they walked through high school doors?