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Watch the Performance That Sent a Chicago Teen to Broadway

By Benjamin Woodard | March 20, 2015 5:36am | Updated on March 21, 2015 7:48am
 Lawren Carter, 17, won first place in Chicago's qualifier for the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
Lawren Carter, 17, won first place in Chicago's qualifier for the August Wilson Monologue Competition.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

EDGEWATER — As Senn High School junior Lawren Carter took the stage to deliver her first-place performance, she wasn't thinking about the topic of her monologue.

Lawren was thinking about something she's kept safely in her closet since she was a child: her late-father's prosthetic leg.

The 17-year-old aspiring actor won it all last week at the Chicago finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, delivering a performance that won raves at a packed Goodman Theatre. Now Carter, and the second- and third- place winners, will be heading to New York in May to compete on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre.

Her monologue, just 90 seconds long, depicted a scene from playwright August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," set in the 1930s. Her character, Berniece, is speaking to her brother, who was trying to persuade her to sell the piano that her late mother once loved.

Lawren said the night before her performance, her mother told her to think of her father's memento, his prosthetic leg.

"I kept that leg after he died, and my mother said, 'Think of that piano as your dad's leg,'" Lawren said. "And I was like, there it is. ... I felt the emotion of the monologue."

And so did the judges.

The competition began in January with 700 high school students from across the state. Sixty regional finalists were chosen; then 20 were picked to perform at the Goodman.

Senn did well, placing 12 students in the semifinal and five in the finals, said Joel Ewing, Senn's lead theater teacher.

He said it was Senn's first time entering the competition, and he couldn't be more impressed and proud.

"I'm an actor in town as well — a lot of my students are surpassing me before they graduate high school because I have not performed at the Goodman stage. They got me beat at that. I used to live in New York, but I certainly didn't perform at the August Wilson Theatre. So Lawren's got me beat on that," said Ewing with a smile as he turned to her in his classroom Thursday. "You're already leaving me in the dust — but that's the idea I guess."

Not only did Lawren earn a free trip to Broadway, but also a $500 scholarship.

"I've never been out of the Midwest, and I've never been to New York, so to actually go to New York and to perform on Broadway is a-mazing," she said.

Lawren's mom, Doretha Stewart, said she would be traveling with her daughter and the two other competitors — Casey Edwards, from Chicago High School for the Arts, and Booker Vance, from Kenwood Academy High School.

Stewart said she was expecting "another great performance" from her youngest.

"She’s been acting since she was 3 or 4 years old," said the 41-year-old mother of seven. "She's awesome. That performance is dynamic. It just make you go to that moment with her."

Playwright August Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for a series of 10 plays, called "The Pittsburgh Cycle." Each play is set in a different decade, depicting the African-American experience.

The August Wilson Monologue Competition was founded seven years ago in its namesake's honor, featuring monologues from his plays.

Ewing, the instructor, said he wasn't sure how his students would react to the experience.

"A lot of our non-African-American students were like, this feels odd to portray a character that is black and of this time. I want to have reverence and respect for it," he said. "But at the same time even our black students were like, well I'm black, but I'm not ... from this time or this place.

"But after a while you kind of forgot about it in a way," he said. "After a while you don't see the race anymore. You just focus on the story and the humanity of each piece."

Lawren said she didn't understand the power of her monologue until she thought of her father.

"I didn't realize the words she was saying and how powerful they were. I didn't realize that I had a connection with this monologue until the day before I had the finals," she said. "I don't really too much like to watch myself act, but that was probably one of my most powerful performances."

Ewing agreed.

"Lawren's really technically proficient, and she did a great job performing the piece, but it wasn't really until she brought that personal connection it really started to hit, which was crazy."

Lawren and the other contestants will travel to New York May 2 and compete May 4 at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St.

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