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Students act out in monologue contest

Teens will perform works by playwright August Wilson


by: COURTESY OF RED DOOR PROJECT - Grimm star Russell Hornsby works with Grant High sophomore Marquasia Trent, one of 16 regional finalists in the August Wilson Monologue Competition, set for March 3 at Gerding Theater.Russell Hornsby of “Grimm” fame has joined forces with others for the August Wilson Monologue Competition, which will be held in Portland for the first time this year, along with eight other cities nationwide.

And, for good reason. Hornsby has evolved into a “Wilsonian soldier,” spreading the word about the late great African-American playwright and poet and performing in many of the man’s acclaimed plays. So, when Kevin Jones, co-founder of Portland’s August Wilson Red Door Project, asked him to mentor students involved with the monologue competition, Hornsby jumped at the chance.

The history of August Wilson, and the meaning of his poetry and plays, hold great value, Hornsby says.

“It’s to give young people an exposure and understanding of the works and legacy of August Wilson,” Hornsby says. “It helps them understand that he is a literary American treasure in the same vein as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.

“We’re talking about his works chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. It’s important for young kids — black and white and all races — to understand the importance of his experience and time and imprint and contribution to America and American history.”

About 70 high school students applied for the August Wilson Monologue Competition, and about 40 showed up to audition; 16 finalists emerged. They’ll recite Wilson monologues, no longer than three minutes, at the regional final on March 3 at the Gerding Theater (see reddoorproject.org to reserve free tickets). Three students will win cash prizes and travel to New York City to perform on Broadway with other young “Wilsonian” performers from other major U.S. cities, May 2 through 4. In addition, Portland Actors Conservatory will award the eligible regional winner a full academic two-year scholarship valued at $21,000.

Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh, which inspired his famed series of 10 plays about 10 different decades of the 20th century, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” which earned him two

Pulitzer Prize awards for drama. He died in 2005 in Seattle, leaving behind a strong legacy not only within the African-American community, but throughout the literary world.

“Because he was a poet, because he was a playwright, I have no problem comparing him with Shakespeare,” says Bonnie Ratner, Red Door’s executive director. “He created these great monologues.”

Hornsby hopes students learn the meaning of Wilson’s work, rather than look at the monologue competition as just competition.

“Performance and competition tends to put a lot of pressure on the children,” says Hornsby, who hopes to attend the national competition in New York. “I look at it as a presentation. We’re talking about kids not necessarily pursuing careers in arts or acting. It’s more of an exposure to his material and work and the issues of race and culture and differences we have. It gives them a better understanding.”

Like other “Grimm” actors, Hornsby likes to be involved in local endeavors. Jones asked him to mentor kids, and Hornsby says he would enjoy that — but warned Jones that his style might be different than others and hoped “students didn’t feel intimidated by my approach, which is very hands-on and direct — I’m not one to beat around the bush.”

Other actors involved include Chantal DeGroat, Vin Shambry and Victor Mack. Ratner says organizers reached out to schools and community groups, such as Self Enhancement Inc., to recruit interested young people to the competition.

Here are the students involved in the August Wilson Monologue Competition regional finals:

Arianna Jacobs, 16, Franklin; Mahatma Poe, 19, New Avenues for Youth; Blake Dunbar, 17, Clackamas; Malcolm Jones, 18, Cleveland; Hailey Kilgore, 14, Clackamas; Marquasia Trent, 15, Grant; Jordan Henderson, 17, Putnam; Matthew Hughes, 17, Roosevelt; Kenneth Aoyagi, 17, Grant; Quinci Freeman-Lytle, 16, Grant; Kyra Orr, 15, Grant; Ryan Townsley, 16, Clackamas; Lauren Steele, 16, Jefferson; Sekai Edwards, 15, Jefferson; Madeline Kitzmiller, 16, Putnam; Taylor Salter, 15, Metropolitan Learning Center.

Twelve of the 16 finalists are African-American. “It’s very open, and we definitely support that,” Ratner says. “The students will tell you that August Wilson transcends everything — very rooted in concrete things, and it’s about the human experience.”

Their monologues will not be easy, she adds.

“There is a tremendous amount to learn about the process of learning a difficult piece that you have to memorize,” Ratner says. “He’s a great playwright, and you learn him word for word. He has very particular rhythms related to blues and jazz. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline.”

The August Wilson Red Door Project has its own mission, acting “as a social change agent, using the arts as a catalyst to change the racial ecology of Portland.”

Organizing the local monologue competition, along with Portland Center Stage, helps continue the mission.

“From theaters to educators, we’re involving everyone in a small way,” Jones says. “The AWMC is creating new audiences for theater in Portland, and we’re sharing that with our community. By giving these young people the opportunity to meet, engage and support each other, the competition directly affects our racial ecology.

“These students have internalized these monologues to the point where they’ve become these characters. The performances will be intense, not only because it’s a competition, but because these 16 students have become an extraordinary team.”