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2023 Next Narrative Monologue Competition Upholds New Standard of Representation

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Edited by Gurjot Kang

Lelena Moore, a junior at Stadium High School, performs “The Icons of Black History” by Idris Goodwin at the Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center for the 2023 ‘Next Narrative Monologue Competition’ on March 2nd, 2023. (Photo/Kai Lewis).

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There’s a buzz of excitement in the dimly lit room of the Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center. Behind the rows of family members, teachers, and friends sitting in the audience, a line of 18 students eagerly await their chance to perform on stage for the 2023 “Next Narrative Monologue Competition.” Throughout the room, whispered voices echo as students nervously rehearse the monologues they selected a few months prior.

The students chose their monologues from an array of contemporary works written by inspiring Black playwrights. For the students participating in the ‘Next Narrative Monologue Competition’ semi-finals on March 2, this stage provides them a platform to not only strengthen their self-esteem and voice, but also boldly share their love for the arts. Such is the case for Lelena Moore, a junior student at Stadium High School in Tacoma, who performs the monologue The Icons of Black History at this year’s competition.

Moore shines bright in her performance as she embodies the role of an assertive stage director badgering a cast of actors for their lazy attitude towards depicting historically notable Black Americans. A burst of laughter erupts from the crowd as Moore asks an imaginary actor if Fredrick Douglas ever had a snack break.

This isn’t Moore’s first time competing for a spot in the finals. This year, she was adamant about switching things up and adding something new to her performance.

“I tried to pick a different monologue to show the different characters I could play, and I wanted to choose a funny monologue,” said Moore enthusiastically.

Although Moore’s performance had the audience laughing at certain points, it also reminded them of the complex struggles many prominent Black American figures endured to achieve basic human rights. Similar to Moore’s monologue, the other pieces performed by the students didn’t shy away from painting a portrait of the bitter truth about the Black American experience.

This year, Seattle Rep, the largest non-profit resident theatre in the Pacific Northwest, wanted to introduce students to an influx of Black literature by prioritizing work from prominent Black playwrights in their selection of monologues. These playwrights include Idris Goodwin, Candice Jones, Stacey Rose, Addae Moon, James Anthony Tyler, etc. Amid a growing nationwide movement to ban books that center BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories from the classroom, it’s comforting to know that competitions like the “Next Narrative Monologue” are pushing back and setting a progressive standard for future youth acting competitions across the country.

Previously, the competition solely focused on monologue selections from Black American playwright August Wilson but that changed this year. Although the Seattle Rep’s decision to transition from the “August Wilson Monologue Competition”’ to the new model might raise some brows at first Deanna Martinez, Associate Director of Arts Engagement at the Rep, ensures the choice was made with the best intention in mind for the students. This also includes the ‘State of The Student’ a play written by Rachel Atkins and directed by Brodrick Ryans. Students who participated in the monologue competition but didn’t reach Regionals were specifically selected to take part in this play.

Students listen for their names to be announced for either a spot in Regionals or to perform in the “State of the Students” on March 2nd, 2023. (Photo/Kai Lewis).

A survey of 137 youth expressing their encounter with ‘racism, anti-semitism, and white nationalism’ in their everyday lives cultivated into a reminder of the present-day condition of our society. Much of Wilson’s award-winning monologues, featured in past competitions, covered topics directed at a more mature audience instead of relating to the experiences of high school students throughout Washington State.

“The [monologues] are contemporary and the topics and subject matter are a little bit more relatable,” said Martinez. “The age range is a little bit more relatable. There are more monologues for women, also for non-binary folks, and trans folk.”

For the 2023 run, the True Colors Theatre, which first started the competition in 2021, carefully picked 60 monologues. Some of the monologues chosen include Come Across That which portrays a female character’s distaste and hopelessness for how Black men mistreat Black women, It’s Aaliyah For Me which celebrates the life of R&B singer Aaliyah, and The Dreamer which chronicles the frustrations of the main character as their dream bubble bursts upon realizing the crises burdening their younger generation.

Even though there’s a myriad of monologues to choose from, more than one student can perform the same monologue. Joshua Rhodes, a sophomore student at Why Not You Academy in Des Moines, performs the same monologue as Moore, but makes it his own by including a unique portrayal of the ‘stage director’ character in The Icons of Black History monologue.

Joshua Rhodes, a sophomore at Why Not You Academy, uses skills he’s learned from coaching sessions in his performance in “The Icons of Black History” by Idris Goodwin on March 2nd, 2023. (Photo/Kai Lewis)

Rhodes performs the monologue with a humorous and sarcastic tone, which he uses to hide his annoyance and disappointment with the characters he calls out. From the mannerisms to the enunciation of certain words to the display of specific emotions, Rhodes genuinely enjoys the process of developing the character of ‘stage director.’

Rhodes even surprises himself when he receives notes on how his voice drops an octave or two while performing.

“I have the sly tone of this dude who thinks he’s like smooth and always right and prideful,” said Rhodes.

While this character feels natural to Rhodes now, the process of developing this character became a little difficult for him when Rhodes lost his connection to the character in the middle of the competition. At first, Rhodes didn’t understand why he was struggling. But, he then realized that overthinking each aspect of his performance was the source of his trouble.

“When I think about it and think about what I want to do,” said Rhodes. “It’s just not really acting, you can clearly see that [you’re] not giving it [your] all.”

A student being able to quickly attach themself to a monologue is an important part of the competition’s process. Each student should develop a connection to the material and have a reason as to why they chose that particular monologue. Martinez and the other acting teachers and mentors believe they have an important responsibility to prepare the students to perform their best. This includes having the students practice using a bigger voice, becoming familiar with being on a stage, and helping them understand the expectations of what they feel, see, and hear.

Students go through an acting exercise to help with mobility during rehearsals before preliminaries on January 21st, 2023. (Photo/Kaitlyn Nyangate).

Nick Marston, 2022 Seattle Regional Finalist, uses his role as a mentor to remind nervous or discouraged students that acting should be an enjoyable process and an opportunity to live in the moment. Marston remembers a quote from a fellow acting peer that reignited his passion for the craft. “Don’t follow your dreams but live it.” Marston was able to live his dream when he performed at the esteemed Apollo Theater in New York for Nationals in 2022.

Marston recalls this moment as a grounding experience in which he reminded himself that thanks to his hard work throughout the competition, he had already won that night no matter the results. Marston sees his opportunity to serve as a mentor as a full circle moment as he reminds students of the effort they put into each practice and recitation serves as an accomplishment, with or without the title of ‘winner’ or ‘finalist.’

Nick Marston sits down with Laela Johnson to help develop her monologue, “It’s Aaliyah For Me” by Candrice Jones. (Photo/Kaitlyn Nyangate)

“I’m just getting to see the kids perform and be happy and smile,” said Marston. “I had Laela come up to me. She hugged me and said, ‘You really helped me make this monologue happen.’”

Laela Johnson, a sophomore student at Sumner High School, recalls how nervous she felt at the preliminaries. But she also fondly remembers how her dad would encourage her to memorize her lines. While this was difficult at the beginning, as Johnson became used to the routine and process of the competition, she was eventually able to fully immerse herself in developing the monologue.

“I made it in the top 10,” said Johnson. “I guess I did really good in that competition because everybody was laughing like crazy.”

Johnson performed It’s Aaliyah For Me, a monologue where she plays a student that explains to her class the legacy of R&B singer Aaliyah and the impact her career had on young Black girls. Throughout her performance, Laela uses her steady voice to carry an authentic tone of love for Aaliyah.

On April 7th, Lelena Moore and Savannah Coleman won the Seattle Regional Finals and will be heading to New York to perform at the Apollo Theater for a spot at Nationals. Each student that competed in this year's competition displayed a part of themselves to an audience that will take in what this competition means to them. A celebration and appreciation for Black voices, identities, and experiences.

Do you love to see youth unleash their creativity? Do you want to support youth in growing their creative skills? Then please consider donating to our documentary:


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