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Roxbury teen wins national monologue contest

Ashley Herbert, 17, of Roxbury, a student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers is one of three Boston teens who emerged as finalists from the city's August Wilson Monologue Competition and who'll be competing in the national contest on May 5 in New York. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe (Arts, Schulz )

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Ashley Herbert, 17, of Roxbury.

Ashley Herbert of Roxbury emerged as the winner of the National August Wilson Monologue Competition on Monday in New York City — a contest that featured a surprise appearance by none other than Denzel Washington.

Herbert, a 17-year-old junior at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, was chosen as the best performer among 16 high school contestants from cities across the country who delivered monologues from Wilson’s dramas on the stage of the Broadway theater named after the playwright, who died in 2005.

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She won a total of $3,000 in scholarship money: $1,500 from the Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company, which organized the national competition, and $1,500 from Delta Air Lines, the presenting sponsor of the competition.

“I’m still in shock,’’ Herbert said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “This competition really changed my views about life. I came there not thinking that I would ever do acting again, but it made me feel that if you really try your best and you really focus on it, you can really achieve something big.’’

While her proud mother, Marci George, and several relatives looked on in the August Wilson Theatre, Herbert delivered a monologue by a character called Black Mary, from Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,’’ set in Pittsburgh in 1904. In the monologue, Black Mary, a housekeeper, defiantly tells her boss that she will cook the way she wants to, not the way the boss wants her to.

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“Since we weren’t miked, I was kind of worried about whether people heard me,’’ said Herbert. “But when I heard people chuckling when I said my lines, I thought, ‘Oh they can hear me.’ I walked off feeling good about myself. I was happy that I got to perform on Broadway.’’

Herbert was among three Boston students who performed in New York after winning a regional competition organized by Huntington Theatre Company. The others were Trinidad Ramkissoon, 19, who is in his final year at Boston Day & Evening Academy, and Dinia Clairveaux, 18, a junior at Snowden International School at Copley.

Herbert and the rest of the contestants were stunned when Washington walked out onto the stage of the August Wilson Theatre. “It was crazy,’’ she said. “I didn’t know he was going to be there. When I turned around and saw he was actually there, I felt like it was a dream. Everything and everyone around me: It was like a dream.”

True Colors Theatre Company managing director Jennifer Dwyer McEwen said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Washington gave the contestants “some inspirational messages.’’ The actor had a night off from performing in the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,’’ helmed by Kenny Leon, artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company.

Among the judges were Washington’s wife, Pauletta; David Cromer, the acclaimed director of “Our Town,’’ who is also an actor and a member of the “Raisin’’ cast; and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is also in the “Raisin’’ cast and is known for his work in the plays of August Wilson.

Herbert said her “dream college’’ is Berklee College of Music. (“I really, really want to go there.’’) Meanwhile, her success in the monologue competition may have expanded her career horizons. Before the competition, she wanted to be a music educator or a music therapist.

“But after the monologue performance, people kept telling me I should be an actor,’’ Herbert said. “Now I’m like, I don’t know, should I try it? I have in mind musical theater.”

In a statement, Alexandra Truppi, the Huntington’s manager of curriculum and instruction, who was Herbert’s coach, said: “Ashley found a new piece of herself in the character of Black Mary each time she performed her monologue. Watching her grow since October has been a real joy. When we began, she was a shy, quiet kid, but through the process of working, she has found her voice.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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