- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

In her black T-shirt and trousers, her beaded braids secured at the back of her head, Benedicta Doe didn't look very Shakespearean.

But as Benedicta, a high school senior who immigrated here from Liberia six years ago, performed a soliloquy from the role of Prospero in "The Tempest," the audience was enthralled.

"She's very good," someone whispered.

"Excellent," said another.

Diversity and talent were on display yesterday at Charles Sumner School in Northwest for the 12th annual Shakespeare Competition, sponsored by the D.C. chapter of the English-Speaking Union.

Benedicta, who attends Roosevelt High School in Northwest, and 41 other students from area schools recited Shakespearean monologues and sonnets as part of the contest.

By the end of the day, judges, including two Shakespearean actors, had selected 11 finalists who will participate in a final round to be held on Monday. The winner will participate in a nationwide contest in April in New York City. The grand prize is a study tour at the Oxford School of Drama in England.

Yesterday's contest featured students from public and private schools in and around the District, including Arlington (Va.), Fairfax (Va.), Montgomery (Md.) and Prince George's (Md.) counties, and Alexandria, Va.

The contest "gives students an opportunity to develop skills in elocution and a chance to work with one of the great masters of the use of the English language," said John Andrews, founder of the Shakespeare Guild.

Mr. Andrews takes over as president of the English-Speaking Union in two weeks. Founded in 1920, the nonprofit union encourages communication among English speakers worldwide through educational programs and professional exchanges.

The students, without the aid of props or costumes, presented a range of emotions, from anger and flirtatiousness to pain and arrogance. Many said the timeless quality of Shakespeare's characters appealed to them.

"Shakespeare was so very prescient … so forward-seeing," said Jessica Speck, a drama teacher at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac in Montgomery County.

She said it was interesting that many students appeared to have chosen Shakespearean works dealing with diversity, including characters like Shylock, a Jewish moneylender from "The Merchant of Venice," and the outcast Calaban from "The Tempest."

"He deals with people from diverse backgrounds, and that's what makes him timeless," Mrs. Speck said of the Bard of Avon.

Annie Harding, an English teacher at Roosevelt High, said Shakespeare remains "the most quoted writer ever. He had great ability to touch on things that remain contemporary, like love and political assassination."

Evan Susser, 16, a sophomore at the Field School in Northwest, portrayed Calaban. He said Shakespeare's characters "still appeal to people."

His Calaban had a contemporary touch, appearing almost like a 21st-century man without the British accent. "I don't think an accent would matter… . It's not really important," Evan said.

Students said they were nervous as they took the stage. A couple of students even developed stage fright and were unable to complete their presentations. One student dropped out after coming down with a cold.

Those who did make it to the finals said the worry had been worth it.

"My heart was pounding all the time," said Benedicta, 18. "But now I feel so good."

She said she practiced just two weeks for the contest, with help from her teacher, Mrs. Harding.

"I chose Prospero because I have seen 'Tempest' performed as a live play before," Benedicta said, adding that the character interested her because "he plays a person ready for change."

She was chosen as one of the 11 finalists.

Jesse McIntosh, a student at Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, Md., played Borachio from "Much Ado About Nothing." He described his character as a "drunk, a troublemaker who is always scheming and messing things up."

The 16-year-old, who has acted in plays since he was in the sixth grade and hopes to be a professional actor some day, said performing Shakespeare presents special challenges.

"It's the language … trying to figure out the meaning behind what he is saying," he said.

"You adapt that language and try to make it the way you speak normally … and I really enjoy doing that," added Christine Varoutsos, 18, of Potomac High School in Fairfax.

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