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Monologue contest winners celebrate playwright, and a couple of them are going to New York City

COURTESY: RED DOOR PROJECT - Twelve Portland students competed in the August Wilson Monologue regional finals competition on Feb. 27 at Newmark Theatre. The competition celebrates the wonderful works of the late great African American playwright.In talking with 18-year-old Alexis Cannard over the phone, it's easy to hear the passion in her voice.

It's no wonder the Roosevelt High School senior won first place in the August Wilson Monologue regional competition here in the Rose City, and is advancing to nationals in the Big Apple.

Finding inspiration in the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Cannard delivered the monologue of her life, coming out on top of 12 total semifinalists at the Feb. 27 event and advancing to nationals, May 1 at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City.

Though she did have a bit of previous experience — this was her second crack at the event, having lost out during the 2014-15 competition. But she doesn't really view it as a loss. Rather, it was a bump in the road, and a taste of reality for any aspiring actress.

"I didn't take the initial non-acceptance as discouragement, in terms of what I want to do but rather more so as a challenge for me to get better," Cannard says. "I do think that everything happens for a reason, and theater in general, they always tell you you're going to be told a bajillion nos before you hear again."

COURTESY: RED DOOR PROJECT - Three finalists were chosen at the regional competition. (From left) Jazanna-Marie Riddlesprigger, 16, Arts & Communication Academy, second place; Alexis Cannard, 18, Roosevelt High School, first place; and Noreena McCleave, of Wilson High School, third place.In its third year, the competition honors Wilson, known for his theatrical writing about the African-American experience. It's hosted by The Red Door Project, which aims to "change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts."

The competition is held in nine other cities, having started in Atlanta, Georgia.

About 100 students from Portland and Vancouver applied to enter the competition, according to organizers. Preliminary auditions and callbacks were held in early January, while master classes — where semifinalists receive training from professional actors and teaching artists — were held through mid-January and February to prepare students for the regional finals.

Cannard says it was an opportunity to channel an emotional connection. She portrayed Ruby, a character from Wilson's play "King Hedley II." Cannard says she chose to portray Ruby's character because Ruby had been taken advantage of by a man in her life. Cannard says she has gone through a similar situation, having endured sexual assault.

"In peeling back the subtext of that story, replacing my story with hers, to create that emotional connection that can bring you to an emotional place, it just made me think about the ways I had been affected by it that I may not have acknowledge before," she says.

Cannard says she discovered "some deep things about myself" — that it was like therapy via theater.

"You (think critically) about those experiences and how those experiences have affected you, and it's like opening up a new door," she says.

COURTESY: RED DOOR PROJECT - The competition allowed students to express themselves though August Wilson's work, including Anthony Hill-McCoy, a Roosevelt High School student who performed Boy Willie from 'The Piano Lesson.'Cannard didn't perform the monologue as though Ruby's confidence had been forever damaged by the experience, however.

"She's telling it like a joke, like it's a folk tale, but she's still hurting," Cannard says.

The second-place winner, also advancing to New York City, is Jazanna-Marie Riddlesprigger, 16, who attends the Arts & Communication Academy in Beaverton. She portrayed a character called Berniece from the play "The Piano Lesson."

She chose the role because it portrayed a strong, independent black woman, a single mother — characteristics she identified with from her own life experiences.

"I thought about my mom. You know, she raised two boys and one girl by herself. I thought about my grandmas and my aunties who were doing the same thing," Riddlesprigger says. "I was thinking about the strong women in my family. I just wanted to do them justice because their story deserves to be told."

COURTESY: RED DOOR PROJECT - Artistic director Kevin Jones says that students learn presentation through the August Wilson Monologue competition.The two were coached by Kevin Jones, co-founder and artistic director of the competition and the Red Door Project.

"(The competition is) focused on getting the kids to develop skills around presentation and how to get beyond their own fears, their own doubts, their own inner voices that say, 'I can't do this, it's too much,'" Jones says.

He hopes that the competition continues to expand. In future years they hope to reach a "broader base and deeper within the African American community and some of the other marginalized communities."

The two students both say that though the event is called a competition, they built many friendships and long-lasting connections with the other students.

"I like, genuinely love everyone I met in this competition," Cannard says.

Riddlesprigger adds, "(The competition is) more within yourself. The battles that you have inside yourself."