They soar, they sear, they linger in the memory: Impassioned monologues are often a dramatic high point of the late August Wilson’s work.
Before he died in 2005 at 60, Wilson completed his landmark “Century Cycle’’ of 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century, that add up to an indelible chronicle of the African-American experience during that span.
On May 5, three Boston students will get a chance to speak Wilson’s words when they join high schoolers from seven other cities around the country in New York for the national finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, run by True Colors Theatre Company of Atlanta. Each finalist will perform a monologue from one of Wilson’s dramas at the Broadway theater on West 52d Street named after the playwright. The top winners in the competition, which is free and open to the public, will receive cash scholarship prizes.
“August Wilson is the man,’’ says an admiring Trinidad Ramkissoon, 19, one of the local finalists. Ramkissoon, who is in his last year at Boston Day & Evening Academy, will be joined in New York by Ashley Herbert, 17, a junior at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, and Dinia Clairveaux, 17, a junior at Snowden International School at Copley.
All three local finalists, who won a regional competition in February organized by Huntington Theatre Company, have chosen monologues that amount to passionate declarations of independence by characters who are in search of self-definition.
Ramkissoon will perform a monologue from “Fences,’’ set in 1957, delivered by the play’s 53-year-old central character, Troy Maxson. (The student says he was so moved by the monologue that he started crying the first time he performed it.) An immensely gifted baseball player who was denied a major league career because of racial prejudice, Troy works as a garbage collector. His outsize personality can’t conceal the burdens of his life’s disappointments — or the impact on his family when those disappointments prompt him to stray from his marriage. In the monologue Ramkissoon has chosen, Troy tries to explain to his wife, Rose, that his affair with another woman was his way of escaping the feeling that he has been stuck in place. “Do you understand after 18 years I wanted to steal second?’’ he tells her.
Herbert will deliver a monologue from “Gem of the Ocean,’’ which is set in 1904 in Pittsburgh. The speaker is a housekeeper named Black Mary, who can never seem to satisfy her demanding boss, Aunt Ester, a former slave. Finally, Black Mary erupts when the older woman lambastes her cooking methods. “Your way ain’t always the best way,’’ Black Mary declares vehemently. “I got my own way and that’s the way I’m doing it.’’
Clairveaux will portray 26-year-old Molly Cunningham, who shows up with a cardboard suitcase and a set of firm convictions at a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.’’ The play, set in 1911, reflects the massive migration taking place at that time, as many African-Americans from the rural South forged new lives in the industrial North. In the monologue, the independent-minded Molly gives some pointed advice to another young woman about how to deal with men. She describes how her own abandonment by a former lover intensified her resolve never to be tied down by children, and she makes it clear she will never subordinate her spirit to any man, asserting: “One’s just as good as the other if you ask me.’’
The Globe recently interviewed the three Boston finalists in a rehearsal room at the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q. Can you tell me why you chose the monologue you chose?
Ramkissoon: I know what it means to be black in this world. I know what it means to feel like you have two strikes against you. Some of the things that [Troy] talked about, in referencing baseball, resonated with me, because I love the arts, and that’s kind of what I default to. That’s my life. I don’t know how to talk about anything else but the arts. That’s the kind of thing [Troy] does in the piece: Everything is revolving around baseball. That’s how he makes his connections. I’ve always had a difficult time with school. I was a high school dropout. I re-enrolled back into high school this September. I know what it means to feel like you’re on first base. I thought it was amazing that he had the courage to want to make it to second base — not to get home, but just to go to second base.
As a man, I think you cheat for two reasons: Because you feel inadequate and that’s a way to remove yourself from the situation without acknowledging that there’s things you can do to work with your partner, or because you need to do something for yourself. I think that’s what made us love Troy Maxson as a character: He didn’t do it because he was being malicious or to hurt her. He was doing it because he needed to find something within himself. It didn’t negate the fact that he loved her. That was so human. I would never cheat. I’m monogamous. [But] it made me think about it, like, what is the psychological standpoint someone is coming from when they’re making these decisions? I thought it was simply amazing that [Troy] wanted to do something for himself. I thought he was selfish in a good way. It’s very important to sometimes be selfish.
Herbert: To be honest, I just chose a random person. But when I actually sat there and looked at the monologue and what it was talking about, I saw how it connected with my life. That’s how I put my emotions into the monologue and made it my own. It reminded me of how I switched schools from ninth to 10th grade. I loved that [previous] school. And my family, I guess they didn’t like it for me, and they wanted a better school for me, so they switched me out. And I was upset by that. They basically just want what’s best for me, and they see different from what I see. I felt like Black Mary was being told how to do things and was being controlled in a way, and she was getting tired of it, and just wanted to show that she could do things on her own. I feel like I have my own ideas and I want to explore them and see where it gets me, rather than somebody telling me what to do and how to do it all the time.
There’s one line in my monologue, “I like the fire high.’’ That’s actually the way I like to cook. Me living in an apartment with my mom and my grandmother — I used to live with my grandmother; she passed away — they used to always tell me, “Turn the fire down. The alarm is going to go off.’’ And I used to get upset. Because I feel like it cooks quicker when the fire’s high. So I would turn it down just to satisfy them. But it brings me back to when my grandmother was alive and how she used to always tell me how to cook. I feel like that part of my grandmother is still here. My mother still does it. I really relate to Black Mary a lot. I even tell my mom and she says, “Did you choose this monologue because of me?’’ Because she’s always telling me how to cook. I like how it connects with me, although when I first read it, I thought that Black Mary was kind of aggressive. And that’s just not me: I’m a very happy person, I’m always smiling. Me being an aggressive and angry person was hard to fit into the character. But somehow I just got it.
Clairveaux: It was the first [monologue] I grabbed, and I was like “Oh my God, I’m kind of like this. Oh my God, I could do this.’’ Her whole demeanor and attitude: I felt like it was easy to do, because the language, I’m used to it. She’s giving advice. Me as a person, I like giving advice to people, especially my friends. I’m a straightforward person. I will tell you things. [My friends] have to take hard criticism. I like giving advice to my friends, because they always come to me.
Q. August Wilson wrote one play for each decade of the 20th century. I’m wondering, since you’re all young, how those other historical eras spoke to you, what truths in his depiction of those eras seem enduring to you?
Ramkissoon: I love when there’s a piece that is accessible to any race; that really resonates with me, kind of like “Raisin in the Sun.’’ Any race can have an opportunity to really sit and examine their life, their family life, and that’s what August Wilson did in “Fences’’ for me. My grandmother was born in 1914. She passed away in 2006. So I’m a part of that history, in a way. I think truth is truth, always. In no way do I think truth is absolute. I think it’s a relative concept. As we progress with time, we’re finding it’s just repetition. And I feel like repetition is the father of learning. So there were pieces of that play that are truthful to now, and that we can reexamine.
Herbert: I felt like it wasn’t a period piece. I felt like it was actually something I would see today, down South or something. Black Mary is talking to Aunt Ester, and she’s saying how she wants to cook her own way, and she has her own ideas. I think that sounds like it could be present day. The rest of the play made you feel like you were back in time. It definitely felt more real, because it was people and their lives rather than reading a history book. [In history books] you never hear about the actual people going through this or how they lived their daily lives throughout history.
Clairveaux: All the plays he wrote, you can relate to them, as an African-American person. During that time, the struggles that African-Americans were facing, you can actually feel it in the plays. And you have a sense of, this really happened. To act that out, you just have this feeling: I was there. It makes you feel like you were in that time. I could relate to [Molly’s] struggles. People nowadays are still facing that. Molly Cunningham, she’s an independent woman. She doesn’t need anybody. She likes company, she doesn’t want to feel lonely, but then again she wants to show you that she’s independent, she’s strong, she can provide for herself. And I really like that about her. During that time , I felt like women didn’t really have a voice. For her to be that independent and strong, it’s very fascinating.
Q. I’m wondering how meaningful it is, to African-Americans particularly, to have August Wilson deciding “I am going to capture the entire arc of a shared history,” and what the meaning is for students your age.
Ramkissoon: [Wilson’s plays are] a way for us to examine how much we can relate to one another, as just humans, more than anything. That’s important for me, because he did a decade and he found a way to condense it for that time period. A way to do that is to just find what the truth was in that period, and I think he captured that for each of the periods that he chose to write about.
Herbert: I feel like it’s a compare-and-contrast, the present day and the past. With African-Americans, we can connect a lot to his plays. To feel like we’re not sort of misunderstood, that we have somebody who knows what happened — or what’s now happening — and being able to show that to everybody in the world, in plays, is really amazing. Having that connection is just powerful to me.
Clairveaux: Kids my age, they wouldn’t really know about what happened in African-American history. For him to capture all of that in plays, it really shows a lot. And it can show us what happened back then and how we as African-Americans were living, and how things were, how it’s really different from society now, how things really changed. His plays will live on for a lot of years.
Q. How nervous are you about [the competition in] New York?
Ramkissoon: I’m excited. I get to learn, I get to be somewhere I eventually want to have my career. This means the world to me. I already won: these experiences, the people I get to meet, the fact that my voice gets to be heard on this platform, at the Boston Globe. These are all opportunities that kids like us don’t get. I’m not nervous about anything. My biggest thing is I want to represent August Wilson. I just want to make sure that I honor his work. I guess that’s what I’m nervous about: To be able to tell Troy’s story in a way that people understand it, and that I make sure that I do my part to keep August Wilson’s work alive.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.