Ryan Townsley comes onto the stage swinging. The gangly 17-year-old, a junior at Clackamas High School, stomps his feet, winds up an imaginary baseball bat and sways side to side as if readying for a fight. He's rehearsing a monologue from August Wilson's Fences, portraying that play's patriarch as he recounts a wrestling match with the specter of death. "I ain't going easy," Townsley says, growling his final line—and then cracking a little smile.
"Did you read the play?" asks actor Chantal DeGroat from a back row of the auditorium.
"Yeah, I read it," Townsley shrugs, with classic adolescent insouciance.
DeGroat bolts to her feet. âYeah, you did!â she howls. âRyan, I cannot tell you how good it feels to see you start to throwâthisâdown.â
It's Saturday morning in an auditorium in North Portland, and Townsley and a dozen other teenagers are running through monologues written by one of America's greatest playwrights. Wilson, who died in 2005, wrote a 10-play cycle chronicling the black experience in the 20th century, and for the past five years, high-school students across the country have taken part in a monologue competition honoring his work. This year, thanks to the August Wilson Red Door Project, a local nonprofit that aims to address racial issues through the arts, Portland is one of eight cities participating. A preliminary January audition winnowed a group of 40 down to 16, and all but one have stuck it out till now. They'll compete in the regional finals Monday, March 3—the event is free and open to the public—and three will advance to the national finals, held in New York City in May.
Of the cities participating in the competition, Portland is the second smallest (after Pittsburgh, Wilson's hometown) and the whitest, but Wilson's work isn't new to this city: Six of his plays have been professionally mounted here since 2010, most at Portland Playhouse. Even so, the chance to see some of his most memorable monologues rounded up on a single evening, as they'll be next week, is unique.
Wilson's plays give voice to characters—ex-cons, gypsy cab drivers, trash collectors—rarely seen onstage. His themes are weighty: death, drugs, poverty, infidelity, struggling families, crumbling communities. One goal of the competition is to convey the gravity of Wilson's work to these students, who come from a range of racial backgrounds and vary in acting experience. A few have been groomed as performers since toddlerhood; others have never acted; one is homeless. In the master classes taught by area actors, the kids haven't been coddled. One described the coaches' criticism as "staggering." Another said it's been "relentless."
Coach Russell Hornsby, who plays homicide detective Hank Griffin on Grimm, doesn't hold back. On Saturday, he demonstrates what he calls "a musical downshift." Thrusting out his broad chest, he unleashes a guttural holler and then mimes pulling back a gearshift as his voice drops into a low rumble. The students look on, wide-eyed. A few laugh nervously.
For Hornsby, this aggressive tack is necessary. "You can't tiptoe around the foul language or the foul images," he says. "That's what the material is. There's hope, but there's also desperation. You can't sugarcoat that. You can't ignore that."