Jordan Talley and Nick Marston could be Broadway’s next big stars. But for now, they are sticking to being high school students.
Marston, 17, is a junior at Silas High School in Tacoma and Talley, 15, is a sophomore at Fife High School.
On a rainy Thursday, the pair sat in the lobby of Tacoma Musical Playhouse where they were about to rehearse their roles for “In the Heights” — the hit Broadway musical by Lin Manuel Miranda.
A few days earlier, they were walking the streets of New York City’s Washington Heights, where the musical is set and a movie adaptation was filmed.
The trip to New York wasn’t for location scouting. It was to compete in the Next Narrative Monologue Competition. The drama competition highlights the most talented of the country’s next generation of performers.
It was held at the city’s iconic Apollo Theater.
“You were in a space where, like, legends had been there,” Marston said. “There’s a wall backstage where it’s signed by everybody that’s performed there. Elton John, all the Jacksons, Usher.”
The Next Narrative competition is the successor of the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Wilson was a renowned Black playwright based in Seattle. He died in 2005.
The current competition is managed by True Colors Theater Company of Atlanta.
For the competition, high school drama students select an original monologue submitted by 50 different up and coming Black writers.
Nine US theaters, including Seattle Rep, held preliminary and semi-final competitions. The two top winners in each region were sent to the finals in New York on May 2, all expenses paid.
“The monologues were kind of about … racism, gentrification, struggles that especially minorities face, you know, how being queer and black and and living in neighborhoods that are gentrified and stuff like that,” Talley said.
Their drama coach, Deanna Martinez, acted as their chaperone for the trip. The competition is open to any student, she said.
“But because (the monologues) are by Black authors, the subject matter appeals most to all students who are of the majority,” Martinez said.
Talley is Black and Marston is Hispanic.
In 2021, Seattle Rep hired Martinez to recruit and coach about 70 drama students to compete in the regional Next Narrative competition. She was not a judge.
Earlier this year, the 70 students were eventually whittled down to 11 for the semi-finals.
“It was way more nerve wracking than the actual finals,” Talley said.
Martinez has known Talley and Marston since the pair were in middle school and participated in Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s youth program. Martinez directed them in the “Frozen Jr.” musical.
“I knew back then that they were very talented,” she said.
Only Talley and Marston were sent to the finals in New York to compete against 17 other students. Each student had to perform a monologue of three minutes or less in front of a panel of judges at the Apollo.
Neither placed but Marston was given a leadership award.
“It felt very validating to me as a person who’s coached them all along, and who’s known them since they were in middle school, to see them achieve success,” Martinez said.
Both of the young actors said they were more nervous competing in the Seattle competitions than at the Apollo.
“We felt as if we already won,” Marston said. “When we got to New York and at the Apollo, just being able to be on stage.”
At the Apollo
During a tour at the Apollo, the theater’s historian asked the group of young people if any wanted to sing while on the famous stage.
Marston led the assembled group in a rendition of “Lean on Me”.
“And everyone was getting very emotional,” Martinez said.
“When we got to New York and at the Apollo, just being able to be on stage there was an honor,” Marston said.
The students were treated to a Broadway show, met professional performers and got advice for pursuing drama in college.
Life imitating art
For “In the Heights,” Marston plays Sonny and Talley is a dancer. Martinez plays the role of “Abuela” in the production.
During their time in New York, the trio visited the actual Heights, situated in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
“We were literally on the same street that they filmed tons of the movie at,” Talley said. “I mean, just seeing the open fire hydrants like they talked about — it’s real. Everything is real. It was crazy.”
“We returned with more confidence in the show,” Marston said. “We learned so much more about the Heights and the community around us. And now we feel like we could do so much more on stage.”
“In the Heights” opens at Tacoma Musical Playhouse on May 13 and runs through June 5.
This story was originally published May 9, 2022 5:30 AM.