Even though it was her first time in New York City, Saidah Wade wasn’t nervous. The 17-year-old from Atlanta had already been doing theater since she was 9, so at first, taking the Broadway stage for the fourth annual August Wilson Monologue Competition didn’t phase her. She had chosen a piece from Wilson’s play “King Hedley II” and practiced dilgently for the two months leading up to the show.
When she arrived days before the competition’s national finals, she did so as one of fifteen high school students from across the country. Everyone seemed supportive, mostly happy to have made it so far. Wade was excited to get through the first round of competition, and eager to see what everyone else had in store. It wasn’t until the final competition that her nerves kicked in.
“I didn’t feel excited about it anymore,” she recounts over the phone from Atlanta. “I felt like I’d done it so much better in Atlanta.”
Another contestant had to remind her of what her theater class in Atlanta had long tried to hammer home: she could do it. And she did. Wade had chosen to play Tanya, a pregnant 35-year-old married mother to a 17-year-old girl who’s also pregnant. Tanya has to explain to her down-trodden husband her decision not to keep the baby. Wade’s rendition was enough to convince the competition’s judges, and she walked away with a first place prize and $1,000 reward.
The August Wilson Monologue Competition was started by acclaimed theater director Kenny Leon in 2008. For the past four years, it’s gotten mostly black high school students from across the country together to celebrate the work of one of the modern era’s most celebrated black playwrights.
Wade hadn’t heard of Wilson until a teacher told her about the competition two years ago, and even when she chose her monologue, it didn’t sit well. But she’s been a performer for years, having been trained at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater since she was in elementary school.
Wade’s story is notable on several accounts, not the least of which is the dearth of black performers on stage on the screen. In recent years, there’s been much discussion about the fact the fact that fewer black artists are getting mainstream attention. If anything, Wade’s win and the institutions that helped make it happen show that there’s no lack of talented black artists.
“I learned to never underestimate myself,” Wade says of the whole experience, noting that she plans to continue studying theater in college and looking for acting jobs in the interim. “Bright lights, no sleep,” she says of her trip to New York, “Amazing.”