WINNERS–This May 6, 2013 photo shows, front row from left, second-place winner Pablo Lopez from Los Angeles, overall winner Tambi Gxuluwe from Pittsburgh and third-place winner Branndin Phillips-Laramore from Chicago, winners of the 5th Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition. (AP Photo/The O+M Company, Gustavo Monroy)
by Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK (AP) — A 17-year-old from the Pittsburgh area has won the fifth annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, performing a section of the playwright’s “King Hedley II” with powerful skill.
Tambi Gxuluwe, who attends West Mifflin Area High School, took the first place trophy Monday night by beating out 14 other students during the finals at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre.
“It feels like I’m floating. I feel like I’m swimming on air,” Gxuluwe said moments after her victory. “This is not just a trophy for me. This is a trophy for my city, for my family. This is a trophy for everybody who wanted to do this but didn’t. This is wonderful.”
The runner-up was Pablo Lopez from Los Angeles, and third place went to Branndin Phillips-Laramore from Chicago. The 15 finalists came from seven cities — Seattle, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.
Each picked a 2- to 3-minute monologue from one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” which chronicles the experience of black Americans in each decade of the 20th century. The cycle includes the plays “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” ”Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” ”The Piano Lesson” and “Radio Golf.”
The program, which was started at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company after Wilson’s death in 2005, is designed to familiarize students with the life of the prize-winning African-American playwright.
As part of the program, students attend a Broadway or off-Broadway show and meet with Broadway actors, directors and designers. This year, the contestants saw “Motown: The Musical” and worked with two of Wilson’s collaborators, director Kenny Leon and adapter Todd Kreidler.
Leon is the driving force behind the contest, urging schools to perform Wilson’s plays and turning the students into soldiers for the cause. He high-fived each of the performers and kept the crowd excited by doing push-ups between monologues.
“It makes we want to cry every time because it is doing what we set out to do — keeping August Wilson alive,” he said afterward. “It also lets these students understand that America is theirs. They can do anything they want to do.”
The judges were actors Pauletta Washington, Crystal Dickinson, Brandon Dirden and James A. Williams, and scenic designer David Gallo. Also in attendance were Wilson’s widow and daughter.
Judging was based on projection, emotional depth, memorization, energy and characterization, but the polished performances Monday made the final selection difficult. Each contestant had successfully navigated at least three rounds in his or her home state to get to New York.
“It’s been thrilling in years past, but this one was really a strong group,” said Dickinson, who judged for the second straight year and who made her Broadway debut last year in “Clybourne Park.”
“What I was moved by was that there were these very young people — some 16 years old — able to encompass the volume of emotion and commitment that those monologues require.”
Gxuluwe, a senior, plans to attend Point Park University this fall and hopes to study journalism and theater. She won by performing Tonya’s monologue from “King Hedley II,” in which Tonya despairs at the idea of motherhood in a society where “the undertaker got so much business he don’t know what to do.”
The evening also featured a performance from musician Guy Davis and a scene from Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” performed by Roslyn Ruff and Billy Eugene Jones.
The first place winner got a $1,500 cash prize, the runner-up received $750 and the honorable mention winner took home $500. Each winner also became eligible for college scholarship opportunities, and everyone left New York with anthologies of Wilson’s work.
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