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West Mifflin teen wins national August Wilson Monologue Competition

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 4:24 p.m.

A 17-year-old from Pittsburgh has won the fifth annual August Wilson Monologue Competition.

Thembisile Gxuluwe, who attends West Mifflin Area High School, took the first-place trophy May 6 by beating out 14 other students during the finals at Broadway's August Wilson Theatre.

“It feels like I'm floating. I feel like I'm swimming on air,” Gxuluwe said moments after her victory. “This is not just a trophy for me. This is a trophy for my city, for my family. This is a trophy for everybody who wanted to do this but didn't. This is wonderful.”

The runner-up was Pablo Lopez from Los Angeles, and third place went to Branndin Phillips-Laramore from Chicago. The 15 finalists came from Seattle, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.

Gxuluwe traveled to New York City to represent Pittsburgh in the national competition after winning first place in the Pittsburgh competition, sponsored by the Bill Nunn Outreach Project that was founded by actor Bill Nunn.

Each picked a 2- to 3-minute monologue from one of the 10 plays in Wilson's “Century Cycle,” which chronicles the experience of black Americans in each decade of the 20th century. The cycle includes the plays “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Radio Golf.”

The program was started at Atlanta's True Colors Theatre Company after Wilson's death in 2005. A former Wilson collaborator, director Kenny Leon, is the driving force behind the contest.

“It makes we want to cry every time because it is doing what we set out to do — keeping August Wilson alive,” Leon said. “It also lets these students understand that America is theirs. They can do anything they want to do.”

The judges were actors Pauletta Washington, Crystal Dickinson, Brandon Dirden and James A. Williams, and scenic designer David Gallo.

Judging was based on projection, emotional depth, memorization, energy and characterization, but the polished performances Monday made the final selection difficult. Each contestant had successfully navigated at least three rounds in his or her home state to get to New York.

“It's been thrilling in years past, but this one was really a strong group,” said Dickinson, who judged for the second straight year and who made her Broadway debut last year in “Clybourne Park.”

“What I was moved by was that there were these very young people — some 16 years old — able to encompass the volume of emotion and commitment that those monologues require.”

Gxuluwe, a senior, plans to attend Point Park University this fall and intends to study journalism and theater. She won by performing Tonya's monologue from “King Hedley II,” in which Tonya despairs at the idea of motherhood in a society where “the undertaker got so much business he don't know what to do.”

The first-place winner got a $1,500 cash prize, the runner-up received $750 and the honorable-mention winner took home $500. Each winner also became eligible for college-scholarship opportunities, and everyone left New York with anthologies of Wilson's work.

Mark Kennedy is the AP drama writer.

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