McCleave does legendary playwright justice
In Wilson High senior Noreena McCleave's freshman year, she barely missed the August Wilson Monologue Competition cut.
In her sophomore year, the Portland competition didn't take place. And in her junior year, she qualified for the local competition but was one spot short of qualifying for the national competition and a chance to act on Broadway.
But in the final chance of her career, McCleave triumphed — finishing first out of 13 actors and earning a spot in the August Wilson National Monologue Competition. The Red Door Project, which hopes to "change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts," according to its website, hosts the monologue competition — which celebrates the work of the legendary playwright.
"It's honestly kind of unbelievable. I have to pinch myself a little bit, but at the same time I really wanted it and I worked hard to get to that spot," McCleave said.
McCleave first glimpsed August Wilson's work when she saw "The Piano Lesson" at age 14. Though she acted in school plays and enjoyed theater, up until that point, she says she hadn't witnessed the African American experience depicted so authentically.
"I had never seen my culture on stage like that, and I felt like I knew all the characters. I was like, 'Wow, that was amazing,'" McCleave said.
Soon after, McCleave signed up for the monologue competition. In the waiting room before the auditions, she says she was the only freshman. She didn't make the cut that year, but was told later that she fell just short.
McCleave then made the cut her junior year and finished third — one spot away from qualifying for the national competition. And this year, when deciding which monologue to recite, she took a calculated risk.
During a trip to Seattle, McCleave and her fellow qualifiers watched the Wilson play "Two Trains Running." The character Memphis's opening scene, which mixes humor and hard truths and introduces the character as a funny yet no-nonsense fellow, captivated McCleave. She couldn't help but mouth the words.
And although monologuers typically choose the play's climactic scene, McCleave chose this less visceral, more lighthearted piece.
"It was a bit of a strategy to pick something that was a little lighter and could make people laugh," McCleave said.
During preparation for the competition, professionals trained the actors in seemingly unconventional ways — instructing them to sing their monologues, talk in a different accent, recite in a relaxed manner or with maximum intensity, and even crawl on the floor while speaking.
"The point of it is to find nuances in the monologue that you couldn't see before and that you weren't aware of before. It really does work," McCleave said. "It's been incredible to see where everyone started and where we've all ended up through this process, and it's like night and day. It's really cool."
At times throughout preparation, McCleave doubted her unconventional choice.
"I felt like I might not have been doing his work justice by not picking something that really shows off the kind of work he does," McCleave said. "But then I was reminded that this is some of the great work he does. It's not lesser than those pinnacle monologues. It's just different. It invokes a different reaction."
To resemble the spirit of a 60-year-old man from the late 1960s, McCleave tried to emulate her aunt.
"She's got this sarcasm and swagger. You just know she's right when she's speaking. And she has a really great way of telling you about it. And she also has a big history and a story to tell and difficult things that she's gone through," McCleave said. "I connected with my aunt and she was my idea in the back of my head that helped me transform into Memphis and stay true to who he is and make it my own."
During a dress rehearsal the day before the competition, she received cause for alarm. While McCleave practiced the monologue at the Newmark Theatre, the competition's location, one of her instructors told her he couldn't hear half of her monologue.
"That was a big red flag to me," McCleave said. "When he told me that, I was like, 'OK, internalize that, fix it, make it better.'"
McCleave was nervous before the competition but enjoyed spending time with her peers and tried to comfort them as well. Once each member finished, they experienced elation. And before receiving her first-place award, McCleave's parents reassured her that she had projected loudly during her performance.
McCleave will compete with 25 of the top youth August Wilson actors in the country at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. The winner will be crowned the national champion.
"I think it's going to be an unforgettable experience and something I'll cherish and hold with me forever," McCleave said.
Along with participating in school plays, McCleave has played for the Wilson High basketball team and been a part of the improv club and a singing group. She isn't sure yet where she plans to attend college and indicates that singing is her primary passion. But she hopes to continue acting in the future.
"I also love acting," she said, "and the doors it's opening are incredible."
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