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As Fences Racks Up Awards, SMU Competition Examines the Work of Playwright August Wilson

Last year’s winner of the August Wilson competition, Bonnie Scott, is now a freshman at SMU.EXPAND
Last year’s winner of the August Wilson competition, Bonnie Scott, is now a freshman at SMU.
Kim Leeson

Troy Maxson is the 53-year-old patriarch in August Wilson’s Fences. He is an authoritarian, gruff, brutal force who famously tells his son, “I ain’t got to like you.” The general public is now learning a lot about August Wilson thanks to Denzel Washington and his commitment to produce 10 of Wilson’s plays for HBO. The big-screen Fences stars Washington and Viola Davis and has racked up Oscar nominations for Best Picture, as well as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Washington and Davis, respectively.

Dallas is getting the August Wilson treatment in a different way. While many moviegoers are hearing Wilson’s words and meeting his complicated characters for the first time, Southern Methodist University is giving high school students the chance to learn Wilson’s plays intimately and then speak his words on stage in competition.

Benard Cummings, assistant professor of acting at SMU’s Meadows school, has been a judge for the August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York since its inception in 2008. It finally occurred to him that Dallas needed this kind of thing. He brought the idea SMU and they immediately jumped on board. Cummings was asked to put it together, and he got right to work.

The competition pools competitors from Dallas-area high schools to perform a monologue from one of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” a collection of 10 plays that focus on the African-American experience in the U.S., for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. This year, the second year SMU will host, 96 applicants participated from 18 different schools. SMU provides all of the financial support, which includes hosting workshops to prepare the students and then sending two Dallas winners to New York for the final round of the competition.

Benard Cummings helps the students to understand the historical context of Wilson’s work.EXPAND
Benard Cummings helps the students to understand the historical context of Wilson’s work.
Kim Leeson

SMU hosts two rounds. The first was held on Jan. 19 and narrowed the competitors from 96 to 16. On Feb. 20, the second round will eliminate all but two, who will then travel to New York for the finals at The August Wilson Theater. Many other cities in the U.S. are now participating in the competition.

Cummings says judging the competition is hard. The kids come ready. They are given two minutes to perform, then the judges break briefly and come back with results. He also says it’s become a great recruiting tool for the acting program. Last year’s Dallas winner, Bonnie Scott, is now a freshman at SMU and the second place winner, Jeffery Pope has been accepted to the incoming 2017 class.

Wilson is tough. His characters, like Troy, are rough, hardened by life and at times abusive. Cummings says this is part of the work for the competitors, delving into the history.

“When you’re doing A Streetcar Named Desire, you don’t look at Stanley and say, ‘I can’t relate to this guy. He’s terrible.’ You look at him in the context of history and what Tennessee Williams was saying about this kind of man. This is what the students have to do with August Wilson. Troy is hard; you may not like him, but you need to understand him.”

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Cummings first saw Fences when it premiered on Broadway in 1987. That production starred James Earl Jones as Troy. It was Cummings’ first Broadway show, and it stunned him.
“James Earl Jones was luminous. That production was large, huge, rough. I was left gasping for air.”

He says the current movie is excellent, but there was something about James Earl Jones that spoke so directly to him. He saw much of his own father in that portrayal of Troy: He was at times gentle, but always authoritarian. He also knows that Wilson was working out issues with his own father in that play. Its historical context is powerful, Cummings says, and it’s important for young students to learn about this kind of man and why he acted the way he did.

Cummings, with help from SMU’s acting students and alumni, gives workshops on these subjects to help prepare the competitors. “I encourage the students to learn about the plays and their history,” he says. “You need to bring yourself to the world of the characters, not the other way around.”

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