Nervously waiting his turn, high school junior Jeffery Pope repeated his lines over and over in his head before taking the stage. When the spotlight shined his way, Pope, wearing a bright purple shirt, black slacks and a freshly cut Afro, rolled back his shoulders and aged about 40 years. A teenager no more, Pope transformed into a man named Memphis who tried to hold on to his last shred of dignity as the world collapsed around him.
Pope was one of 18 students from all over the country competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition finals Monday night. Students performed various monologues from “Century Cycle, ” a 10-play series written by the late African-American playwright August Wilson, held at the Broadway theatre in his name.
Friends and family members searched for empty red velvet seats as contestants were whisked away to the backstage area at 7 p.m. Broadway director Kenny Leon hosted the event, taking his time warming up the crowd with jokes. The students then filled 18 empty seats on the stage. Some sat with hands slightly shaking and eyes shifting left and right to assess competition. The 12th person to perform was Jeffery Pope.
The 18-year-old said he was drawn to his character because of one line from the play “Two Trains Running.”
“It says, ‘Something had a hold of me, all the years,’” said Pope. “Something had a hold of me, and I didn’t find out ‘til it cut me loose.”
The line took him back to a time when he first discovered his passion for theatre. As a young child, Pope struggled with the loss of a close friend and an unstable family life, which left him an angry and troubled student. He moved from school to school until he was forced to take an acting class in the seventh grade. Little did he know, his theatre teacher would become his adoptive mother.
“Right when I got adopted, I saw this whole new world of things I could do once I hit the stage,” said Pope.
For his performance, Pope became an old Southern man about to lose his once popular restaurant and “ready to walk through fire.” Pope sat down to a healthy round of applause, and a high five from the host. All he had to do next was wait.
Other students went through similar onstage transformations. The most petite in the group, Emily Taylor, became a 30-something headstrong woman who refused to bring a child into a world where so many mothers mourned their sons shot dead in the streets. Ireon Roach spoke her lines with so much passion, it was easy to imagine her as a grown woman sitting in a car, hands bleeding from a broken bottle held at the neck of a man who kept making unwanted advances.
The audience immersed themselves in each monologue. Some people made noises of approval. Others wiped away tears and tried to muffle the sounds of their sniffling noses.
The judges had a difficult decision to make. While each student put on a performance of a lifetime, the host held only three envelopes for the winners. Pope never heard his name called. He gave his all, but in the end it was not his night. Still, he was not discouraged.
“Just because you don’t win anything, doesn’t mean you didn’t accomplish anything,” he said.
Roach took first place for the evening. Overwhelmed with the win, she said she tried to find the most effective and honest way of telling her character’s story.
“It’s such a beautiful story in its ugliness,” said Roach. “I just was happy that I had the chance to tell it.”
There were no sore losers in the theatre lobby, as students hugged their friends and posed for pictures. All of the finalists got a free trip to New York and tickets to “Hamilton” and “The Color Purple” on Broadway.
After the competition, Pope excitedly pulled his phone from his pocket to show a case covered with signatures from actors such as Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Rapp and Adam Jacobs from “Aladdin.”
“Meeting them was an encouragement,” said Pope. “When they talked to us, they talked like we were their friends.”