On May 6, two Boston area students will compete in the National August Wilson Monologue Competition. Anotidaishe Chikunya, a senior at Dana Hall School, took first place in the Boston Regional Finals, hosted by the Huntington Theatre Company, for her performance as Berniece from “The Piano Lesson.” Sarah Purvis, a junior at Boston Collegiate Charter School, was named first runner-up for her portrayal of Black Mary in “Gem of the Ocean.” Purvis and Chikunya won an all-expenses paid trip to New York City for the national competition.
Both girls have theatrical backgrounds, Purvis in theater and Chikunya in spoken word. The importance of Wilson’s work resonated with both actors. “It allows for the historical black experience to continue to be portrayed in theater,” says Chikunya. “I’ve never seen a lot of all black casts or anything like that. I think it’s really interesting that even today some of August Wilson’s comments are still applicable.”
Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta launched the August Wilson Monologue Competition in 2007 to celebrate his groundbreaking representation of the 20th-century African American experience. 2019 marks the ninth year the Huntington Theatre Company’s education department has hosted the regional competition in Boston. More than 670 students from 18 different Boston area schools participated.
Both actors have encountered different challenges during the competitive process. “I’m from Africa, so my experience is a little bit different than people who are black but were born in America,” says Chikunya, who came to the United States in 2006 from Zimbabwe. For Purvis, it was challenging not to see Black Mary’s experiences through the lens of contemporary feminism. “When I first performed it, I focused more on how I would feel if somebody had said that to me today, and that’s not exactly the same as how Black Mary feels because it’s a different time period,” she says.
In the weeks leading up to Nationals, the actors have been honing their performances. Chikunya says she’s working on emphasizing her movements and streamlining them with her performance. Purvis says she’s trying to keep the historical context of her character in mind. They will perform the same monologues that won them the regional competition.
No matter how the competition plays out, Purvis and Chikunya can add the experience to their theatrical repertoires. Purvis says, “Even if I don’t win, I feel like I already have won. We’re going to be able to see a show on Broadway, we’re going to be sitting in on professional rehearsals, we’re going to be on Broadway. Not a lot of people can say that.”