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When the stage lights go up at Chicago's Goodman Theatre on Monday evening, more than 20 high school students will each have a moment to step into the spotlight and perform a monologue from one of the plays written by the late August Wilson. Chicago's contest is one of several regional finals that strives to introduce students to the Pulitzer Prize winner's work. It's also a lead-up to the national August Wilson Monologue Competition that will be held on Broadway later this spring.
In a large rehearsal room, actor Brian Weddington, who has performed in two Wilson plays, coaches three students as they practice their monologues. They've lined up their chairs in a row — one student slouches in his seat, another looks pensive, the third sits erect.
Branndin Laramore, Lia Miller and Ernesto Moreta are getting into character as they work on selections from Wilson's Century Cycle — 10 plays, with one for each decade, depicting the African-American experience in the 20th century. In all, 22 high school students will compete in the Chicago finals.
"I been to jail," intones the 18-year-old Moreta, who portrays the character of Wolf in Wilson's Two Trains Running. "Stayed down there three months. Tried to make bond and couldn't do it. They kept me down there in the county jail for three months — ain't done nothing but walk down the street."
Moreta says the play's themes really appealed to him as a young actor.
"I just fell in love with it and its theme of injustice," Moreta says, "and just struggling as an African-American, or just as a person and just trying to make ends meet, and really just trying to find your place in the world. So that's like something that really just captivated me."
Wilson, who's often called America's Shakespeare, received numerous accolades during his lifetime. He won a Tony, several New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, and two Pulitzer prizes. He died in 2005.
Director Derrick Sanders, a Wilson protege, is the coordinator of the Chicago contest. He says the monologues Wilson wrote are like arias — colorful operatic passages that give voice to an ensemble of black characters. He says he has watched students become empowered as they perform.
"They take the text and do something extremely unexpected many times," Sanders says. "Unexpected, but they connect to what August is saying in a lot of the monologues, which I think is very powerful."
"I believe Rosie done put a curse on me," says 17-year-old Laramore, playing Shealy, a character in Jitney, Wilson's play about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh. "She ain't want no other woman to have me, but then she didn't want me. I told her, 'Baby, just tell me what kind of biscuits you wanna make.' "
It's a passage from a play that Laramore says hits home with him.
"I like to learn about history. You know, I like to go back in time and learn as much as I can about my people," Laramore says. "How he just captured it — he did it just right, in my eyes."
The Goodman Theatre, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the Chicago League of Theaters are sponsors of the Chicago competition; six other cities host the contest as well. The goal is to get Wilson plays into schools across the country.
Lia Miller, 17, who portrays Tonya from Wilson's play King Hedley II, says that when she was a freshman, her drama class read a Wilson play — and went to see it as well.
"I think what's great about August Wilson's plays, is no matter what time it comes from, there's always something that you can relate to," Miller says. "They always have a very strong family dynamic."
The Tonya monologue hit home, she says, because some Chicago neighborhoods have been plagued by shootings that have killed young people.
"I ain't raising no more babies to have somebody shoot 'em," Miller says, as Tonya. "To have his friend shoot 'em. To have the police shoot him. Why I want to bring another life into this world that don't respect life?"
When the students in the Chicago contest step out on the Goodman stage, they'll be judged by a cadre of theater professionals — some of whom either worked with Wilson or performed in one of his plays. For the winners, the next stop is the national competition — at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway — as the organizers work to keep the voice of one of the most prolific playwrights of the 20th century alive.