Exploring August Wilson in Winter

“I planted myself inside you and I waited to bloom,” Techie Dimanche recites, voice crackling with emotion. “And it didn’t take me no 18 years to find out that the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never going to bloom.” Dimanche, from English High school, finishes her monologue, her tone rough with desperation. Then there’s motion from below, and she adjusts her denim jacket and smiles at the wave of applause. It’s a Saturday morning, and nine high school students from schools around Boston are sitting on the edges of the stage of the Huntington Theatre of Boston University. After the girl goes back to her seat, there is silence for a few minutes as the judges in the audience scribble frantically in their notebooks. Then one of the coordinators, Naheem Garcia, nods from the side of the stage. A girl wearing a blue headscarf stands and takes Dimanche’s place, introducing herself as Halima Ibrahim.

The students, who range from grades 9 to 12, are competing in the Boston regionals of the “August Wilson Monologue Competition,” a celebration of the works of August Wilson, one of America’s most influential playwrights. In the competition, high school students recite monologues from what’s called the “Century Cycle,” a series of 10 plays by Wilson, each exploring the African-American experience in one decade of the 20th century. The event takes place in cities all over the United States, and selected finalists are sent to New York City to compete on Broadway. The nine competing today have been practicing their monologues since early autumn, when affiliates of the competition’s sponsor, True Colors Theatre Company, began to run workshops in schools around the area. Many of these students have already won school-wide monologue competitions in order to be here. Now, onstage, they move nervously in their seats—rubbing their knees, twisting to talk to the person next to them, folding and unfolding their hands in their laps. Their parents and friends watch from orchestra seating. It’s only after the moment that a student’s name is called that he or she gains complete self-possession and begins to inhabit his or her character.

Ibrahim delivers her monologue, an excerpt from the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “What I care about burning in hell?” she says. “You talk like a fool….God can kiss my ass.” There is a moment of silence before the sound of applause.

Offstage, Ibrahim is a serious young woman, but she smiles when talking about the performance. “Technically,” she says, “I’m a very religious person, and when I came across the monologue, I was skeptical. It was everything that was the opposite of me. I chose it because it is very emotionally strong. It kind of gives people the opportunity to think about what their religious views are.” Ibrahim, a junior at Snowden International School was the first runner-up in the competition, winning herself a trip to New York City along with Tyrell Joseph and Reanna Johnson.

Joseph begins his excerpt from “The Piano Lesson” with knees bent, so he is almost looking up directly into the eyes of his audience and the invisible character he is addressing. “That’s when I discovered the power of death,” he says, his voice dangerously soft. “See, a nigger that ain’t afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man. He can’t hold that power over you. That’s what I learned when I killed the cat. I got the power of death too.” Joseph—who had little acting experience before he began practicing his monologue in November—won the competition on the strength of his passionate interpretation of one of Wilson’s final plays.

A 10th grader at Codman Academy, he won his school-wide competition in December using the same monolouge from “The Piano Lesson.” He has been practicing it almost every day since, though most of the work happened in the privacy of his own home. “He only likes to practice in the shower,” his mother Francis Joseph said with a chuckle. Before the monologue competition, he also took third place in the school poetry recitation contest. Offstage, he consents to taking a few photographs, smiling shyly, with his mother and his girlfriend, before he scrambles onstage to take photos with the other contestants. His parents watch him. His mother says she is not quite sure what changes in Joseph when he is on stage. She shrugs and smiles as he begins to fill out paperwork for his trip to New York. “I think it comes from within.”

—Staff Writer Aisha K. Down can be reached at aishadown@college.harvard.edu.

Tags