Sekai Edwards stands up straight on stage, shoulders pulled back and chin tilted upwards. The sophomore at Jefferson High School laments about the atrocity of losing a child. Desperation permeates her voice as she speaks about the injustice Little Buddy Will’s mother faced when her son was shot and killed on Bryn Mawr Road.
Edwards, performing the role of Tonya from King Hedley II, pauses and catches her breath before continuing. “I ain’t going through that. I ain’t having this baby … and I ain’t got to explain it to nobody.”
Edwards’ performance of Tonya’s monologue, written by playwright August Wilson, was one of 15 performances at the Gerding Theater on March 3. The performances marked the first Portland regional competition for the national August Wilson Monologue Competition (AWMC).
The AWMC invites high school students from eight cities across the U.S. to perform an August Wilson monologue of their choosing. The cities competing this year are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Portland. The top two finalists from each city will compete May 5 in New York at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway. The winners of the national competition will be awarded monetary prizes and college scholarship opportunities.
Wilson is best known for his series of 10 plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which explore the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century.
“August Wilson portrays these struggles in an original and commanding way that reminds us of the racial prejudice we must battle in our world, community and most importantly ourselves,” Edwards says. “So being able to use his work to talk to another generation is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and one no one should.”
Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler, two of Wilson’s closest collaborators, founded the AWMC through the True Colors Theatre of Atlanta, Georgia in 2007, when young actors of color began to reach out to the duo expressing concern about how to get a start in acting.
The Portland regional competition was presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project, a nonprofit whose goal is to change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts.
“We are about creating a Portland where everyone can thrive and have the chance to achieve their full potential,” Kevin Jones, cofounder of the Red Door Project, said at the March 3rd competition. “Shining the light on our youth is a very effective way to ensure that goal is reached.”
To recruit students for the competition, the Red Door Project visited 11 Portland high schools where local artists of color presented Wilson’s monologues. The top 15 students then worked with coaches in eight master classes, each three hours long. Russell Hornsby from Grimm worked consistently with students, along with actress Chantal DeGroat and actor Vin Shambry.
“Even though they are speaking somebody else’s words, they picked these monologues because something about it spoke to them,” says Alex Ramirez, the program’s coordinator at the Red Door Project.
Edwards used the online compendium, which contains all 10 of Wilson’s plays, to pick her monologue. She decided on the first play she read, King Hedley II, because she connected to the emotional struggle the character Tonya faces when a young boy from the community is shot and killed.
“I think because of where I live, there’s a lot of death around young men and going to jail, and so I connected with that,” Edwards says.
Taylor Salter, a sophomore from the Metropolitan Learning Center, decided on her monologue, Vera from Seven Guitars, because of the language.
“It wasn’t an intellectual process, it was just, it caught me,” Salter explains.
Lauren Steele, a junior from Jefferson High School, took first place performing Tonya from King Hedley II and was awarded $500 and a full scholarship to the Portland Actors Conservatory. Taylor Salter took second place and was awarded $250. Both young women will compete in the national AWMC in New York. Sekai Edwards came in third place in the Portland regional competition and while she will not be competing, she will have the opportunity to perform in New York with the other national third place titleholders.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was 5 years old to make it to Broadway. It’s a childhood dream come true — one day I knew I would be ‘that girl,” Edwards says.
Steele, who has participated in other local poetry competitions, such as the Verslandia Poetry Slam, says the AWMC has brought her significantly closer to her dreams of being an artist.
“It was really interesting to see that this monologue competition has taken me further than a lot of school stuff ever has. I’m now more confident to pursue my dreams,” Steele says.
This article features content from interviews with Oregon Art Beat.
Editor’s Note - May 5, 2014: A previous version of this article stated that Kenny Neon was a cofounder of the AWMC through the True Colors Theatre of Atlanta, Georgia when in fact it was Kenny Leon.