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In Chicago, 22 high school students are rehearsing for their moment in the spotlight on a big stage. Each teen will appear at the prestigious Goodman Theatre, performing monologues written by the renowned playwright August Wilson. This is a regional final in a national contest designed to introduce students to the late Pulitzer Prize winner's work. NPR's Cheryl Corley has our story.
BRIAN WEDDINGTON: See your character right now, kind of see your character.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In a large rehearsal room, actor Brian Weddington, who's performed in two August 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: My name is Sheely, and the thing I like most in life...
LIA MILLER: My name is Tonya, and the thing that I love most in life...
ERNESTO MORETA: My name is Wolf, and I have to say the thing I love most in this life is women.
CORLEY: Branndin Laramore, Lia Miller and Ernesto Moreta are getting into character as they work on selections from August Wilson's "Century Cycle," 10 plays, 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.
MORETA: I've been to jail. 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.
CORLEY: Eighteen-year-old Ernesto Moreta portrays Wolf in Wilson's play "Two Trains Running."
MORETA: I just fell in love with it and its themes of injustice, really, and like 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, like, place in the world. So that's like something that really just captivated me.
CORLEY: 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, an August Wilson protege, is the coordinator of the Chicago contest. He says the monologues Wilson wrote are like arias, operatic and colorful passages that give voice to an ensemble of black characters. And he says he's watched students become empowered as they perform.
DERRICK SANDERS: They take the text and do something extremely unexpected many times. Unexpected, but they connect to what August is saying in a lot of the monologues, which I think is very powerful.
LARAMORE: I believe Rosie had put a curse on me. 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 want to make.
CORLEY: Seventeen-year-old Branndin Laramore portrays Sheely, a character in "Jitney," Wilson's play about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh. It's a play that Laramore says touches him.
LARAMORE: Because, you know, I like to learn about history. You know, I like to go back in time and, you know, learn as much as I can about my, you know, my people. How he just captured it, he did it just right, in my eyes.
CORLEY: In Chicago, the Goodman Theatre, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Chicago League of Theaters are sponsors of the competition. And six other cities host the contest too. The goal is to get Wilson plays into schools across the country. Seventeen-year-old Lia Miller, who portrays Tonya from Wilson's play "King Hedley II," says as a freshman, her drama class did read a Wilson play and went to see it as well.
MILLER: 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. They always have a very strong family dynamic.
CORLEY: And Miller says the Tonya monologue hit home since some Chicago neighborhoods have been plagued by shootings that have killed young people.
MILLER: I ain't raising no more babies to have somebody shoot them, to have his friend shoot him, to have the police shoot him. Why I want to bring another life into this world that don't respect life?
CORLEY: When the students in the Chicago contest step out on the Goodman stage, they'll be judged by a cadre of theater professionals, some who either worked with Wilson or performed in one of his plays. For the winners, the next step is the national competition, at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway, as the organizers work to keep the voice of one of the most prolific playwrights of the 20th century alive. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.