Rachael Warecki Photo by Marc Campos
View of Keck Theater at Occidental College from a raised lift

On February 17, 20 Los Angeles-area high school students gathered at Occidental’s Keck Theater to compete in the local semifinal round of the national August Wilson New Voices (AWNV) competition.

Formerly known as the August Wilson Monologue Competition, AWNV is an annual, national contest that honors the eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and provides high school students of all ethnicities and abilities the opportunity to explore Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle. In a series of regional competition rounds across the country, participating students perform a two- to three-minute monologue from one of the cycle’s plays and are judged by working theater professionals on their preparedness, understanding of the text, emotional connection to the material, and commitment to the performance. The top two finalists and one alternate from each regional competition receive a cash prize and the opportunity to compete in the national competition finals, which are held in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh.

Occidental’s selection as this year’s preliminary and semifinalist competition venue in Los Angeles was the result of a collaboration between Will Power, assistant professor of theater and performance studies; independent producer and director Tyrone Davis; and Sophina Brown, the founder and executive director of the local nonprofit Support Black Theater, the 2023-24 Los Angeles sponsor of the AWNV competition. Last year, Power taught the first Wilson-focused course in the College’s history, a class that proved popular with theater and non-theater majors alike.

“To have the opportunity to teach Wilson’s work, and to engage our robustly brilliant Oxy students, was an incredibly rewarding experience for me as a theater artist and teacher,” Power says. “Without a thorough understanding of Wilson, it is difficult to fully grasp the historical and contemporary complexities of American culture. Through this class, course participants explored difficult questions of art and race, and came to new realizations through the study of the life, artistry, and legacy of August Wilson.”

Between Power’s commitment to teaching Wilson’s works and the enthusiastic support of President Harry J. Elam, Jr., himself a preeminent Wilson scholar, “it seemed natural that this collaboration should occur,” says Sarah Kozinn, associate professor of theater and performance studies and chair of the department. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for Oxy students to learn and engage further with Wilson’s legacy.”

To that end, Occidental students collaborated with AWNV organizers in several ways: as volunteers to help run the competition’s preliminary and semifinal rounds, as educational assistants in workshops with contest participants, and through internships at Support Black Theater.

The AWNV competition represents the latest partnership between the Department of Theater and Performance Studies and regional arts organizations. For decades, Resident Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Jamie Angell has connected with local schools through his work as the director of Occidental Children’s Theater, a year-round acting program that employs Oxy students and alumni as teachers. Students have also held internships at prestigious L.A. theaters, including A Noise Within, Center Theatre Group, and the Independent Shakespeare Co., and the department’s course curricula include numerous opportunities for students to experience contemporary theater and engage with working artists in the field.

Kozinn says that hosting this year’s AWNV competition reaffirms the College’s reciprocal relationships with neighboring communities as well as its commitment to excellence, equity, community, and service.

“While anyone can compete in AWNV, these plays are invitations for students of color to stretch and get inside the worlds of an author who may—or may not—reflect their own identities,” says Kozinn. “By hosting a competition that centers the work of a Black playwright who writes plays about Black characters, providing incredible roles for Black and Brown actors, we hope to reiterate that theater is not just for white actors and authors. There is a rich, long tradition of great theater by Black artists, and we welcome it here at Oxy.”