L.B. Landry High School Honors Playwright August Wilson With Monologue Competition
For more than a decade, high school students around the country have honored the life and work of the late playwright August Wilson with an annual monologue competition, delivering scenes from “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”
The first round is held regionally and in a typical year winners advance to a national final in New York City. Louisiana hasn’t participated in the past, but L.B. Landry High School in Algiers hopes to change that.
This year, the school hosted its own version of the event called The August Experience. The purpose was to introduce students to Wilson’s work and plant the seeds for more formal competition in the future, according to theater instructor Jyna Roots-Tilton.
Twenty-one students from eight New Orleans schools participated including Landry senior Laila Joseph. She said while her teachers had mentioned Wilson in passing, she was largely unfamiliar with his work before signing up for the competition.
“Where has this been? I’ve been reading Shakespeare and I’ve been reading all these other people, but I really hadn’t tapped into August Wilson,” Joseph said.
The Black playwright is often referred to as America’s Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, Wilson's work isn't heavily featured in high school curriculums and most teenagers aren’t familiar with his work.
The Pulitzer Prize winner is best known for a series of 10 plays — one from each decade — depicting African American life in the 20th Century. Wilson completed the cycle of plays in 2005 and died from liver cancer several months later. He was 60 years old.
Luna Baltodano, a senior at International High School of New Orleans who also competed Saturday, said she was in the same position as Joseph.
“I really didn't know who August Wilson was [before this competition]. I feel a little ashamed but I didn’t know,” Baltodano said.
The students performed two- to three-minute monologues and were judged by a panel of theater professionals, some of whom worked with Wilson or performed in one of his plays.
Joseph was awarded the competition’s grand prize for her performance as Tonya in Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” The play is set in Pittsburgh in 1985. Tonya is pregnant and afraid of one day losing her unborn child to gun violence. She illustrates this by describing another mother’s despair.
“You take Little Buddy Will’s mother up on Bryn Mawr Road. What she got? A heartache that don’t never go away,” Joseph intoned. “She up there now sitting down in her living room. She got to sit down ’cause she can’t stand up.
“She sitting down trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what happened. One minute her house is full of life. The next minute it’s full of death. She was waiting for him to come home and they brought her a corpse.”
After her performance, Joseph sat in the school's cafeteria eating a slice of pizza off a paper plate. She’s relatively new to acting and said while she’s been studying theater for about a year and a half, Saturday was the second time she’s performed on stage.
Joseph said she selected the monologue, with help from her teacher, because she found Tonya’s fears relatable.
“I know a lot of people who feel like this,” Joseph said. “The fear of not knowing if you’re gonna come back, if your family member is going to come back and how could you live with the death of whoever that is, whether it be the police killed them, someone else killed them or anything else happened.”
Joseph said sometimes she also feels powerless. Standing on stage as Tonya, she drew from her own experiences and thought about a close family member who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
She described acting as “hard core” and “emotional,” and said embodying another character and considering their feelings has given her new tools to manage her own.
Joseph plans to attend Xavier University in the fall for biological sciences. She doesn’t plan on pursuing acting professionally, but hopes to participate in theater as an extracurricular.
Baltodano said she’s always been interested in acting, but couldn’t fit a theater course into her rigorous class schedule. When her teacher suggested she sign up for the monologue competition, she was elated.
“I was like, ‘Yes. Finally I’m getting a time to shine and see if I actually have this talent,” she said. “I was stoked because I was like someone sees something in me.”
Baltodano took home the competition’s first prize for her performance as Aunt Ester from “Gem of the Ocean.”
Second and third prizes were awarded to two other Landry students, Jada Thomas and Deiontre Franklin. Organizers at Landry hope to have students compete at the national level next year.