The August Wilson Monologue Competition is a free education program that offers high school students the chance to practice their storytelling and performing abilities while collaborating with teaching assistants on how to hone these skills. To audition, students prepare a 2 to 3 minute monologue from an August Wilson play in his Century Cycle. Once chosen, they must compete against their fellow students in the Semi-Finals and Chicago Finals. The finalists get to go to New York to perform at the August Wilson Theatre and the winner receives a partial scholarship to UIC’s School of Theatre and Music.
Court’s Education Initiative serves the youth of South Side Chicago and our team of Teaching Artists have collaborated with students in past years as they work to be a part of this competition. Every season, only 60 semi-finalists are chosen out of all the contestants and this year, 31 out of the 60 chosen were part of Court’s program, working with our Teaching Artists to master their monologue skills! 6 students went on as finalists, with one student placing third overall!
We talked with Michael Aaron Pogue, one of our Lead Teaching Artists, to talk about this recent success.
How would you explain the August Wilson Monologue Competition to someone who has never heard of it and the tremendous significance of these recent accomplishments?
The competition is a national tournament wherein high schools students perform/compete with a monologue from any of the ten plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle (Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf). These plays depict and examine the African American experience, chronicling a nation’s history in the twentieth century. With the combined efforts of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers and teaching artists, our students are given rehearsals to strengthen performances and potentially raise their chances of advancing to the National Finals held in New York City on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre.
This year, we had 31 students from our program advance as semi-finalists (60 semi-finalists in total), 6 students advance as finalists, and 1 student place third at finals. We’re proud of these hard-working students. The local preliminaries have nearly a thousand students all over the Chicagoland area apply and compete. Getting from Prelims to Semis is a huge accomplishment because judges choose from nearly a thousand students and select 60 out of all the citywide contestants. Those coached by and affiliated with Court made up half of that gifted and talented population of individuals selected to move forward in the competition.
How would you describe Court’s role in connecting high school students to this opportunity to showcase their performing skills?
Court is profoundly influential in coaching students to hone their performative skills so they have the chance to participate in a nationwide competition. In our three-week August Wilson residency, CPS drama classes learn the dramaturgical context of the playwright, theatrical exercises, and basic performative skills to apply to their monologues. With the consistency and structure of our programs, students have access to a support system, composed of participating teacher artists and fellow participants, so they can work to improve their skills. The process encourages them to recognize their self-value and the value of such collaborative engagements.
In your opinion, what is the most exciting part about getting to see these students perform and progress to the Semi-Finals and Finals?
When they finish performing their auditions, accomplishing their goals as a performer, they walk out of the room with boldness and a confidence they may not have had just a few months ago in the same academic year. Regardless of if they make it to the finals or not, those who put forth the effort undergo a significant change in their demeanor in front of our eyes. It’s gratifying on many levels. It gives them the belief and assurance that they are capable of persevering through life’s challenges.
What do the training practices with the Teaching Artists look like for the students participating in the competition?
We do a lot of repetition. New behaviors and habits are learned by doing them over and over again. We do vocal and physical warm-ups with them every time we meet. We do them so often the students begin to learn the routine and are fully capable of leading warm-ups themselves. We go over textual analysis in their monologues so they learn how to identify meaning to fully interpret the text and make interesting creative choices in their portrayals.
What do you think is the most personally rewarding part about this experience in your role as an Education Associate/Lead Teaching Artist?
I receive the gift of witnessing a wide range of students, mostly African American, have an opportunity to perform one of the most influential playwrights in American history, one who wrote specifically for and to African Americans. The narrative gaze of August Wilson’s work is untethered by Euro/White normative depictions. Though there are generational gaps of knowledge between the material and the students’ contemporary realities, there is a cultural thread that is recognizable and resonates when fully subsumed in their preparedness.
What do you want people to know about the programs provided by Court Theatre’s Education Initiative?
We are endlessly working to find new ways to connect to our communities. It neither starts nor stops with August Wilson. We challenge ourselves to find new ways to break down existing pedagogies and traditional teaching methods of how to interpret classic texts for today’s audiences.
What do you want students interested in participating in these programs in the future to know about this resource?
Court’s involvement in the competition and many of our programs are continuing to draw prestigious recognition. We have a staff of well-versed practitioners in the field who can cultivate the next generation of industry leaders, whatever their chosen fields may be.
Lastly, what would you like to say to all the students who’ve participated?
Onward and beyond. No matter how far you go in the competition, your hard work and participation is a huge leap forward into your history yet to be written and lived. Like Aunt Ester who sermonizes an adrift Mr. Citizen about a spiritual place at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean built from the Middle Passage’s wake, “You want to go there…I can take you there if you want to go. That is the center of the world. In time, it will all come to light.”