We are pleased to report that LeAp’s August Wilson Program 2014-2015 was a great success. Thanks to our generous funders’ support, LeAp was able immerse 380 students in grades 9 through 12 in nine schools from economically disadvantaged, racially diverse communities in an exploration of the work of eminent African-American playwright August Wilson. Through the program, students grasped the value and power of diversity and community not only as it pertains to the African American experience, but also in a wider perspective. The program gave students a new understanding, respect, and appreciation for cultural differences and the benefits of working together.
The August Wilson Program was designed for a wide range of students who come from underserved NYC communities. Participating schools are: Marta Valle high School, Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts, Belmont Preparatory High School, Fordham High School for the Arts, Brooklyn School for Music and Theatre, Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, Edward R. Murrow High School. Hillcrest High School, and Queens Preparatory Academy. On average, over 70% attending these high schools received free- or reduced-price lunch. Approximately 43% of the students are black, 35% Hispanic, 12% Asian, 9% White, and 1% come from other ethnic backgrounds.
Over the course of the 20-sessions in-school residency, students delved into a background study of August Wilson’s life, influences, and the African-American experience. They then went on to examine his plays and selected monologues that they could relate to from the 10-play Century Cycle. After practicing and learning their specific monologues, the students performed and competed in a school-wide, citywide, and national monologue competition. The program is designed to help students of all backgrounds connect with a significant part of American history. Through Wilson’s unique and powerful literary legacy, the students’ outlook and understanding of the various social, economic, and cultural experiences of African Americans are broadened and in turn their appreciation of the differences and similarities of the culture of others.
Description of Activities
The program consisted of the following elements:
LeAp recruited an additional school, serving a total of 380 students in nine schools.
LeAp ran an orientation to review the curriculum and structure, mission and goals of the program. The orientation focused on the importance and significance of studying August Wilson’s work and it's universality, transcending the borders of time and race. The program provides a medium for the students to express themselves and relate on a personal level. By the end of the orientation, the teaching artists and school representatives become inspired to share the power of August Wilson’s work for the rest of the program.
- Planning and Implementation – October and November
Each teaching artist met with his/her classroom teachers in October to plan the once-a-week 20-session program. The students delved into an in-depth study of August Wilson’s life, the African-American experience, and his ten-play Century Cycle. They explored important themes such as community, discrimination, bigotry, bias, alienation based on race, gender, and economic and social status.
LeAp theatre coaches attended a workshop with Stephen McKinley Henderson, a renowned August Wilson and Broadway actor who has performed in numerous August Wilson plays. He focused on the themes as well as the historical and social context of August Wilson’s work so that the teaching artists were better prepared to coach, teach, and discuss the importance of August Wilson’s work with the students.
- Monologue Selection – December and January
Students studied and analyzed August Wilson’s characters, themes, and language, and then selected one monologue that they could connect and relate to on an emotional level. By examining the monologues and the plays from which the monologues were taken, students were able to provide context of the various characters’ point of view and develop their ability to better understand and empathize with people of different background, race, economic, and social status.
- Immersion and Competition – February - June
Students continued to study August Wilson’s work while preparing to perform in a series of competitions. Each school had a school-wide competition where judges selected ten students (for a total of 90 students) to advance to a preliminary competition. The students were further shortlisted by a panel of established professional actors with a knowledge of August Wilson’s work. From this competition, 18 students competed in the New York City Regional Competition at an Off-Broadway theatre that was judged by experienced actors, directors, and August Wilson scholars. Three winning students out of the 18 advanced to the national competition in the August Wilson Theatre on May 4th, 2015, in which New York City placed third.
At the national competition, the third place winners from all eight cities worked together as an ensemble to perform in a montage of his work once again emphasizing the importance of team work. In this competition, all performers gained important exposure to the professional theatre world. Many students received calls from casting directors and colleges. The New York City and two other national winners of the competition received additional four year college scholarships, cash awards, and high quality bound copies of August Wilson’s Century Cycle.
The national competition brought students from across the country together. For three days, students participated in workshops, attended a Broadway performance, and worked together for the entire weekend. The students shared rooms with others from different cities, empathizing and bonding over their differences and similarities, and as a result grew together. They learned that even though experiences are unique to the time, place, and situation, the emotions and themes that come about are the same. They come to understand for themselves that community is not limited to the specific race, socio-economic status, and present time, but it is something that universally encompasses all.
- Brooklyn College – May and June
Students visited Brooklyn College for a tour of their college and their performance arts program. This partnership with Brooklyn College will enable students to receive special consideration in the application process if they wish to apply.
Many NYC students had the opportunity to attend professional on- and off- Broadway shows during the school year, Buzzer and Fun Home, which dealt with pertinent topics such as racial tension, sexuality, and familial relationships. They developed an appreciation for individual differences while gaining the ability to empathize with the people around them. The three winners of the regional competitions also attended Something Rotten which focused on an artists’ journey and the importance of staying true to yourself. Students were able to study the similarities and differences of language, themes, and character development through the various plays.
The August Wilson Program once again improved the students’ ability to understand themselves better, taught them to work together, fostered a deeper appreciation for diversity in them, developed their understanding of the connection between one’s culture and identity in order to become more tolerant individuals. The program also ensured that all students developed a new understanding and appreciation of August Wilson’s themes, language and the African American experience. Through the process of studying his work students learned that there is something bigger than themselves and winning, and that it is important to be supportive and respectful of their peers.
In addition, in a society where academic, social, and professional success is reliant on the students’ verbal skills, the program not only honed the students’ literary interpretation skills and understanding of the nuance and deeper meaning of words, but also developed their communication, presentation, and performance skills. All participating students, regardless of whether they advanced to the final round, returned to their schools with greater literary competency and increased self- confidence that comes from performance and an opportunity to find their voice. The students who did not advance to the national competition continued with their study and performance of August Wilson’s work.
During the reporting period, LeAp Associate Executive Director and Project Director Alice Krieger oversaw all aspects of the program, including project goals, school selection, implementation, training, budget management, and outcomes. In addition, Ms. Krieger visited each school numerous times and met with the administration and teaching artists to ensure that the high-quality program was not only on track and meeting of all of its goals but exceeding them. She also documented the program through video and photography.
School will provide graduation rates, college attendance rates, and standardized English Language Arts test scores for participating and non-participating students for comparison at the end of the school year. All participating students completed a standardized LeAp student survey which contained a variety of questions about their experiences with the program and what they have learned. In addition, teachers also completed a standardized LeAp Residency Evaluation Form which rates the program in different categories, including skills gained by students, the overall program, and the quality of the LeAp teaching artists. Finally, LeAp teaching artists and classroom teachers filled out a LeAp student/teacher rubric report that documents the number of students able to demonstrate proficiency with theatre art skills, academic knowledge, and social skills – such as an increased self-esteem and pride in their work- associated with the program.
LeAp’s August Wilson Program has met all of its goals. Approximately 380 racially diverse, culturally isolated students from underserved communities became more tolerant and empathetic towards issues of diversity in their community by exploring the life and work of August Wilson. We are extremely thankful for the generous and continued support of the Nissan Foundation, NYSCA, and Axe Houghton, which has allowed the program to be such a success every year.