The Center Theatre Group will once again host their August Wilson Monologue Competition Los Angeles Regional Finals, featuring 11 local high school students performing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. This year, however, the 10th annual event will be held virtually on March 23 with performances recorded and streamed as judges will be viewing them remotely, but in real-time.
The August Wilson Monologue Competition celebrates the words of the playwright August Wilson who has often been referred to as the “theater’s poet of Black America,” according to The New York Times, as his work serves as a bridge to audiences about the 20th-century Black experience and culture. The competition has students dive deep into Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” while honing in on acting and storytelling skills.
Camille Schenkkhan, interim department director at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, believes the program gives students a chance to work on their artistry and their individuality.
“We have a long history of producing Wilson’s works and worked with him before his death,” Schenkkhan said. “[The August Wilson Monologue Competition] ensures students how important the work of Wilson is.”
She also added that the program also serves as a way to shape the words of Wilson into the voices of teenagers.
“Wilson was one of the biggest playwrights in the theatre world,” Schenkkan explained. “He was not only celebrated by the community, he was also uplifted by theatre leaders. The program also helps us on the question, where do we go from here in the diversity of LA theatre.”
When the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Schenkkhan also expressed that it was difficult to find ways to maintain the spirit, connection, and heart that the program was known for. For instance, there were some restrictions in performance in a virtual space due to some terms in copyright law.
Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
However, Schenkkhan expressed that the program used these obstacles to learn what works best in terms of virtual engagement at all levels.
“We had to figure out how to do this,” she said. “Pushing through with auditions and workshops through zoom, we [Center Theatre Group] are proud of these super talented kids adapting in this very strange year.”
The national level of the arts education program was founded by former Artist Director Kenny Leon and former Associate Artistic Director Todd Kreidler of True Colors Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The pair worked with Wilson and developed the program in 2007, two years after the playwright passed away.
With the goal to honor his legacy and share Wilson’s work with younger generations, the program expanded to include 19 regions, including Los Angeles, across the United States such as Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York; and San Diego, California.
The top two winners in the Los Angeles competition will participate with other winners from each region to participate in the National Finals, in which they have the opportunity to participate in workshops with theatre professionals. Traditionally, the national level is held in Jujamcyn’s August Wilson Theatre in New York City, but it will be held virtually this year in May.
Simone Baker, a sophomore student at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) that is located in California State University, Los Angeles, is one of the 11 students competing in the regional competition.
“I’m very grateful to have a chance to express myself through the monologue I will be performing for the competition,” Baker said. “When it comes to my voice because I am a minority, I just want to be myself.”
Baker started performing at a young age, with theatrical acting around the age of six. She worked on some projects such as commercials and the like. When her mother saw the Center Theatre Group’s website and became aware of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, she suggested to Baker to audition, which prompted her to be selected to compete in the event.
Prior to the pandemic, Baker was pretty active in the arts and performed pretty frequently.
“This is probably my first performance since the pandemic hit,” Baker said. “I miss the whole environment and my excitement for this outweighs my nervousness. When I’m in the moment, I will be nervous but really I’m just so excited because I truly love acting so much. The fact that it’s been so long that I haven’t acted and I finally have the opportunity to do, it’s just so amazing.”
During her audition, Baker was given a book that contained some of Wilson’s plays and was exposed to his work. She loved and gained an understanding and appreciation of who Wilson was, finding his words to be beautiful.
“It [The competition] is such a lovely experience and I love it so much,” Baker said. “I was a little nervous at first when I first participated in the workshops. But, I love to see how everyone worked and acted. There’s a lot I can take with me in the future, outside of the competition.”
In addition, the experience has encouraged her to watch more plays and to observe deep in the performances of actors both on stage and on the silver screen.
“Although the other students and I don’t give each other comments on our performances during workshops, I still think it’s important,” Baker added.”It can help the actor grow.”
Baker also added that the experience has given her a new perspective of the craft in general. She also encourages students who have the same love and passion for the performing arts to take advantage of what community theatre has to offer.
“Do the competitions and insert yourself in the performing arts community,” Baker said. “Even if you just started acting, you should participate to see how the environment is like. Just learning more [about theatre] and not being afraid to insert yourself in anything, you learn more about acting every day. I know I do.”
The August Wilson Monologue Competition Los Angeles Regionals Finals will be held live at 5 p.m. The virtual event will be free to the public and available on the Central Theatre Group website.
Editor’s Note: Featured image is of playwright August Wilson, director of Ma Rainey’s Black Botton. Photo credit: The Huntington