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Bri'Yon Watts, a senior at Southland College Prep Charter School, won a state championship in Dramatic Interpretation at the IHSA Speech competition for his performance in "Impact Statement" by Kristy Thomas. (Southland College Prep)
When Bri’Yon Watts, of Richton Park, competes this summer in the national finals of the August Wilson Monologue competition, he’ll look to a character he’s portrayed for inspiration.
That role of an African-American dad whose son dies at the hands of police in the monologue “Impact Statement” by Kristy Thomas earned him a state championship this spring. It was one of many wins for the Southland College Prep Charter High School senior, who thrives on using his speech skills and life messages to move an audience.
“One of the things he is very passionate about is telling their stories this year in light of things that happened this summer in our country,” said Cheryl Frazier, the speech and theatre coach at Southland College Prep who has guided Watts in those arts since he was a freshman. “He wanted to really do something that illustrated the struggles of, especially, young Black men and found a dramatic monologue that illustrated that struggle.”
Watts placed second in the Chicago August Wilson Monologue competition in March, playing Youngblood in the play “Jitney.” He will compete with winners from 15 regions in the national finals.
He was also one of six players named to the all-drama cast in the Harvey Sectional of the Illinois High School Association contest at Thornton Township High School. He competed in the IHSA finals for drama recently, performing a monologue from “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe.
This summer he will be competing in the Dramatic Interpretation finals at the National Speech and Debate Association. Then this fall he plans to attend Duke University after receiving a full scholarship from the QuestBridge National College Match Program.
“For me personally, I enjoyed those roles mostly because it gave me perspective on other people in the world and how really diverse we can be at everything we do....” Watts said.
Bri'Yon Watts, a senior at Southland College Prep Charter School in Richton Park, shows some of his awards for speech performances. (Southland College Prep)
Though Watts embraces characters’ differences, he also puts a bit of himself into his roles, such as in “Jitney.”
“I saw a connection between the way he kind of opened up to his girlfriend in the end and let her know he was sorry,” Watts said. “It really showcased his humility and vulnerability and I’ve seen that in myself as well.”
Though he still gets nervous before performing, he keeps it in check by focusing on storytelling.
“I have the nerves, definitely, but as soon as I get ready to perform they go away. I always remember I have a story to tell and the story I’m telling is much bigger than me,” Watts said.
He has drawn inspiration from performers who have impacted him such as Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, who “taught me the power that words have and that just speaking has.” But he also draws from his parents, who he says are opposites.
“Knowing they aren’t anything alike allowed me to realize that’s how these characters are and how everyone is at times. You should accept and understand a person in spite of those differences,” Watts said.
Frazier, his teacher and mentor, said Watts has always been a hard worker, taking on more projects than many students, and he also has “made a phenomenal amount of growth in a short period of time.” She said he also showed leadership, encouraging his fellow students in speech and acting.
“I’m not surprised by his success because of the type of young man he is,” said Frazier. “But I am thankful because sometimes our young Black people are not recognized for their talent because unfortunately even in high school competitions, there is bias and systemic racism.
“A lot of times our stories are not heard. ... I’m thankful he was heard and recognized for the telling of that story.”