Hello, Huntington Theatre Company Blog Readers! I’m Alex, the Manager of Curriculum and Instruction in the Education Department, and I had the privilege of serving as one of the Huntington’s representatives and chaperones at the recent national finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition (AMWC) in New York City. It was an inspiring weekend filled with special experiences, not the least of which was Boston’s own Ashley Herbert taking first place!
David Cromer, Narda E. Alcorn, Holler If Ya Hear Me's Saul Williams and Ben Thompson, Stephen
McKinley Henderson, Ashley Herbert, Denzel Washington, Pauletta Washington, Holler If Ya Hear Me's
Christopher Jackson, Atiauna Grant, James A. Williams, and Robert Upton. Photo: Gustavo Monroy/AWMC
For anyone who doesn’t know, the mission of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition is to introduce students to the life and work of playwright August Wilson through the monologues that form the core of the ten plays that compose Wilson’s Century Cycle. Students from participating cities select monologues from the Century Cycle and then rehearse and perform them in competitions. Each city whittles down the overall field differently, but the result is always the same—the top three students from each city receive an all-expenses paid trip to New York City, where they explore Broadway, learn more about Wilson from some of his closest collaborators, and perform at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre in the national finals. A pretty amazing opportunity!
This year, Boston sent Trinidad Ramkissoon of Boston Day and Evening Academy, Ashley Herbert of the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, and Dinia Clairveaux of Snowden International School at Copley to the national finals. Three very different students from three very different schools, but they all embraced August Wilson through our residencies and found personal connections to his work.
Trindad Ramkissoon, Dinia Clairveaux, Ashley Herbert, and Alexandra Truppi in New York
"'America is for everyone,' and therefore, what we deem 'American literature' must include works that cover the stories and experiences of everyone."
These sentiments were a recurring theme of the national competition weekend (May 3-6, 2014). Kenny Leon, the Artistic Director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company and co-founder of the AWMC, reiterated them multiple times over the course of those four days. His words were deeply felt and understood by the 24 students who’d come from around the country to participate and whose own words demonstrated Wilson’s impact. When Leon asked the students to go around the circle and tell everyone a little bit about themselves and how they connected to the plays in the Century Cycle, a young woman from Chicago said that until a teacher brought an August Wilson play into the classroom, she had only ever been asked to read works by white authors. She and her classmates didn’t feel that their community was being represented in the history lessons and literary selections they’d been required to study, and that directly contributed to many students feeling that school was not a place for them. But when they encountered August Wilson, she and her classmates felt an immediate connection to the stories. “I saw all these young black men tuning in and caring for the first time,” she reflected. Another young woman from Portland, OR, strongly identified with Wilson’s characters. “When I read his plays, I’ll find myself thinking, ‘That one’s just like my mom’ or ‘My grandmother would talk just like that,’” she recalled. “He captured familiar people and it gave me a sense of pride in my own culture and community. It took me a long time to find myself and understand who I am, but these plays have helped me immeasurably.”
Contestants of the 6th Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition. Photo: Gustavo Monroy/AWMC
Although a competition for scholarship money is the culminating event of each city’s competition and the trip to NYC for nationals, the entire group of students seemed to recognize the importance of celebrating Wilson’s legacy, and Boston’s representatives were no exception. From the moment he found out that he would be one of Boston’s representatives in the national competition, Boston Day and Evening Academy student Trinidad Ramkissoon was saying that he’d already won. He saw the opportunity to go to New York, share August Wilson’s words with the world, and learn as much as possible in the process as a major victory in and of itself. When his turn came to speak during the discussion with Leon and Kreidler, Trinidad was quick to voice those views once again, and soon, other students began echoing him. “I agree with Trinidad,” a young man from Pittsburgh said. “Just being here with you all this weekend is amazing. I’m very lucky to get to be here and have this experience with you.” The students were clearly committed to making the trip a special experience for everyone and supporting each other, no matter who emerged as the winners.
When Leon opened things up for questions, another student from Pittsburgh asked a tough one. “I know it’s hard,” he said, “but if you had to choose, which is your favorite of August Wilson’s plays?” Leon pondered this for a moment and was initially noncommittal, but after some thought he confessed that if forced to choose, it would have to be Gem of the Ocean, Fences, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Coincidentally, those happened to be the plays the three Boston students monologues came from: Ashley Herbert would compete in the national competition with a performance Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean, Trinidad had already won the Boston regional competition with his portrayal of Troy Maxson from Fences, and Dinia Clairveaux would appear in the montage (an exhibition performance by the third place students from each city) as Molly Cunningham from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I got chills when Leon listed those plays as his favorites, and when I pointed out these selections to Ashley, Trinidad, and Dinia on our walk back to the hotel later that evening, they got very excited. The trip had already been filled with many fun and inspiring experiences, and we decided that Leon’s listing of those three plays was a sign that more good things were still to come.
The winning monologue performances from the Boston Regional Finals
We already knew that on Monday night, all three Boston students were going to give powerful performances, and all three delivered on their potential. Each of them set the stage on fire with passionate storytelling that was totally honest and held nothing back. The students from the other cities also brought their best, and their interpretations touched on every nuance in Wilson’s writing. I may have never met August Wilson, but I can still confidently say that he would have been extremely proud of the way the students celebrated and honored his work and breathed life into his characters with such incredible depth and emotion.
When Ashley was named as the first place winner, I was still in awe of the beauty of the evening and hardly realized what was happening! When the judges returned from their deliberations, all 24 students were called onstage to receive their very own hardcover boxed sets of the Century Cycle. Then Denzel Washington was there, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and giving an inspiring speech about the importance of setting goals to go along with your dreams and how it’s not what you have but what you DO with what you have that’s important. Then as soon as he was done, Leon was back onstage, announcing third place . . . and then second place . . . and then: “From the city of Boston — Miss Ashley Herbert.”
Ashley Herbert shakes hands with Denzel Washington after the competition. Photo: Gustavo Monroy/AWMC
In improv, there are three major rules, the most important of which (I think) is to always “say ‘yes AND.’” This means that a performer must be open to what’s already been given on the stage, accept it, and then add onto it in order to move the scene forward. All three Boston students who participated in the AWMC nationals were successful specifically because they said “yes” and then made a deliberate choice to take the next step. Following the Boston regional competition, my colleague Naheem Garcia and I worked with all three finalists to prepare them for the nationals in NYC. They said “yes” to every acting exercise and experiment we threw at them—whether it was stacking and unstacking chairs, jogging circles around the Huntington’s administrative offices, or trying to solve a rubix cube while performing the monologue—they were willing to try it. The open-minded approach shared by all three of them is a big reason why they rose to the top in the Boston competition to begin with. Although, it wasn’t something she was all that interested in when the residency began back in October, Ashley accepted the challenge of memorizing and performing a monologue. As a result, she discovered talents she didn’t realize she had and won the national competition. As a long-time aspiring actor, Trinidad was eager to receive feedback at each stage of the competition and absorbed every piece of advice and acting technique he encountered. As a result, he took first place in the Boston regional competition and fulfilled his dream of performing on a Broadway stage, an achievement that will serve as motivation for years to come. When a spot in Boston’s nationals delegation unexpectedly opened up, Dinia accepted the offer and dove back into working on a monologue she thought she was done with. As a result, she had a phenomenal learning experience and walked away with memories that will last a lifetime. As a result of their willingness to simply try… and here’s where the “AND” in “yes AND” comes in . . . they discovered new dimensions to their characters that allowed them to also find a new little piece of themselves they could bring to it.
There is a huge lesson to be learned here about being open to new experiences and not closing oneself off before really knowing what it is you’re staying no to. Obviously, I’m biased—but I really believe that Boston’s were among the strongest students who performed that evening and that we fielded one of the best teams out there. Ashley, Trinidad, and Dinia are testaments to the incredible talent and potential that lies within the students of this city and the amazing things that can happen when you simply say “yes.”
One of the amazing things about live theatre is that’s never the same twice. You can perform the same play for 8 shows a week over the course of years and each performance will change with the audience, with the weather, with what the actors ate for breakfast that morning. Multiple people can perform the same monologue but, as we saw in some of the students from the other partner cities, each of them will interpret it differently. It’s been a real honor to get to spend so much time with Ashley Herbert’s Black Mary, Trinidad Ramkissoon’s Troy Maxson, and Dinia Clairveaux’s Molly Cunningham. August Wilson’s immortal words (YES) plus three incredibly intelligent, talented, unique students (AND). There is not now, nor will there ever be, anyone quite like Ashley, Trinidad, and Dinia. There will also never be an interpretation of these three characters quite like theirs.
Ashley Herbert, Trinidad Ramkissoon, and Dinia Clairveux at the Calderwood Pavilion. Photo: Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
UPDATE: Here's Denzel Washington's surprise speech!