Buffalo high school students brought to life the words of a playwright who was described in his obituary as “theater’s poet of Black America” earlier this month.
This marks the third year Buffalo has hosted a regional August Wilson Monologue Competition during Black History Month. And while Wilson is known for chronicling the Black experience of the 20th Century, his work still resonates today.
“You really find out how good something is when you look back on it, and something that is based on the truth—and a lot of times when you tell the truth—it transcends the generations,” said Myles Windbush-Soules, who placed first in the Feb. 8 competition. “[His] writing about the African American struggle is what I connected with.”
Windbush-Soules, a senior at the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, says he changed his monologue three days before the competition. He knew a monologue from Wilson’s best-known play, “Fences,” would be popular but it still felt right. In the scene he performed, the play’s main character, Troy Maxson, portrayed by Denzel Washington in the movie version, tells an epic story about his struggle with death—and compares it to a baseball game.
“Death ain’t nothing but a fast ball on the outside corner of the plate, and you know what I would do with that,” the monologue reads. “You get one of those fast balls on the outside corner of the plate, where you can get the meat of the bat on it, and pow! Good God, you could kiss it goodbye. Am I lying?”
Windbush-Soules will take that monologue to New York City in May for the National August Wilson Monologue Competition, where finalists from across the country will have the opportunity to perform in front of a celebrity panel and participate in workshops with theater professionals. The trip is fully funded and participants compete for scholarship funds.
The second place regional competition finisher, Floyd Slaughter, of Buffalo’s Hutch Tech High School, also secured a spot for New York.
Laree Livingston, a junior at The Park School of Buffalo, placed third with a monologue from one of Wilson’s later works called “Gem of the Ocean,” which is the name of slave ship in the play. In the scene she performed, a 285-year-old character named Aunt Ester describes the ship to Citizen Barlow. Barlow then embarks on a spiritual journey to the mythical City of Bones—an underwater kingdom of slaves who drowned during the Middle Passage.
“A boat is made of a lot of things. Wood and rope. The sails look like bedsheets blowing in the wind and they make a snap when the wind catch ‘em. Wood and rope and iron,” Ester tells Barlow. She also speaks to him about the peril ahead.
“The world is a dangerous place, Mr. Citizen. It’s got all kinds of harm in it, and it take God to master the world.”
Livingston said she related to Aunt Ester because she comes from a long line of strong Black women who have taught her the value of understanding and celebrating African American history.
“Aunt Ester just had sort of that wise woman, all-knowing [quality] but also, you know, having the knowledge of past generations but looking forward,” Livingston said. “She had an interest in adventure, of wanting to go out and see the world despite the dangers of it.”
With the regional competition behind them, both Livingston and Windbush-Soules are starring in upcoming musical productions at their schools: Livingston as the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods Jr.” and Windbush-Soules as Usnavi in “In the Heights” by Lin-Manual Miranda, his first musical before the megahit “Hamilton.”