Fifteen New Haven high-school students brought playwright August Wilson’s characters to life in an August Wilson Monologue Competition on Friday evening. Before they started, James Bundy, artistic director at the Yale Repertory Theatre, reminded the audience that a little bit of themselves might be in Wilson’s plays.
The self-taught playwright, Bundy said, spent a lot of time just listening to people talk. “The people who are in his plays are people he heard from sitting in coffee shops.” In town, that meant Atticus and especially Book Trader on Chapel Street. If you stop into Book Trader, Bundy said, “You’re sitting where he listened to New Haven.”
But Wilson’s Century Cycle — 10 plays, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century — centers on the Hill District, the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where Wilson grew up. The works chronicle multiple generations of characters, from musicians and petty criminals to day laborers and people trying to get ahead more honestly. And they sing. Wilson’s plays are a feast of language and character. Each monologue creates a world. The Century Cycle is a landmark of the American theater, and it’s not surprising that Wilson’s plays, celebrated in his lifetime, have only grown in stature since his death in 2005. Though this is in part because his colleagues have made sure to continue his legacy.
“We said to ourselves, ‘how can we keep our friend alive?’” said director Kenny Leon, who worked with Wilson, directed his last two plays (Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf), took Fences to Broadway, and brought the entire Century Cycle to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. “Because we didn’t want August to die.”
A decade ago, Leon and others began the August Wilson Monologue Competition in one school in Atlanta. It grew by two cities a year. It’s now all over the country — and at last, in the city where Wilson himself spent time, and saw six of his plays premiere.
The New Haven branch of the competition was organized by staff from Long Wharf, Yale Rep, in coordination with the competition’s national staff. Sixty high school students from the region auditioned for the chance to perform on Long Wharf’s stage. By Friday, judges had narrowed the field to 15 finalists. They came from Educational Center for the Arts, Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, Regional Center for the Arts in Trumbull, and Wilbur Cross High School.
Three of them would receive cash prizes — $100 for third place, $250 for second place, and $500 for first place. But only two of them would be going to New York City, to perform at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway, in a final round of competition with other students from around the country in May.
Tyler Nuzzo-Dozier, a Co-op student, started the competition by slipping into character as Stool Pigeon from King Hedley II. He warmed up the crowd, and threw down a stiff challenge to his fellow competitors. Jaezmyne Pheanious-Browne, also from Co-op, returned the favor as Vera from Seven Guitars — the first of a few Veras, though Pheanious-Browne found her own take on it, bringing out Vera’s indignation, her sense of betrayal. Zoe Eklund (ECA) made her Vera athletic and devastated. Jhenzen Gonzales’s (ECA) Vera was an exercise in vulnerability. And Remsen Welch’s (ECA) take turned down the dial just a hair, to make Vera an ordinary woman, wondering what she did to deserve what happened to her.
But Chloe Lomax-Blackwell turned from Vera’s jilted lover to mother Tonya in King Hedley II, swinging from anger and frustration to self-reflection and back again in the space of seconds. And then, a moment of startling, up-to-the-second relevance.
“I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him,” she said, her voice breaking. “To have his friend shoot him, to have police shoot him. Why would I bring another life into this world that don’t respect life? I ain’t raising no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.” Her despair and defiance was palpable.
April Lichtman (Regional Center for the Arts) made the bold choice to play a man — Becker from Jitney — the cadence of her voice getting huskier, her body language changing before the audience’s eyes.
And Lauren Darden (Co-op), playing Molly from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, moved from the tragedy to follow the other thread that runs through Wilson’s work — the comedy. She had the audience laughing with the first line that she delivered.
After all 15 competitors took their shot, Long Wharf Director of Education Madelyn Newman announced that the judges — all actors and directors themselves — would retire to “make the most difficult decision of their lives.” They returned to announce that they had added up their scores.
Lichtman’s risky gender-switching paid off. She scored third place. Lomax-Blackwell took second. And Darden found herself in first place.
Friends and family, who had cheered for every competitor like they were at a basketball game (“You can hoot and holler,” Newman had announced slyly at the beginning of the competition), mobbed the stage to congratulate everyone who had performed.
The crowd echoed another story Bundy had told before the students performed. He had said that the Hill District in Pittsburgh has four main avenues cutting across 20 blocks, and when Wilson died, his funeral procession, numbering “hundreds of cars,” wound through all four avenues on the way to the cemetery.
“For 80 blocks,” Bundy said, “the streets were crowded with the people of the Hill District whose voices he listened to.” Voices we all heard that night.