This April, a self-assured Jalen Gilbert left New York City as one of 10 finalists at the 29th annual English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition out of 60 competitors from across the country. He enthralled judges with a Shylock monologue from "The Merchant of Venice" and Sonnet 121.
"Since my junior year, I knew I wanted to compete, and to make it to New York was definitely a goal," he said. It was Gilbert's first year competing and making to the top 10 in New York was quite an achievement.
Gilbert, 18, graduated from the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven in May. He moved with his family to Jackson from Florida when he was in the third grade, and he attended Murrah High School during his freshman and sophomore years where he ran track and cross-country.
One of three siblings, Gilbert dreamed of being an actor. "I always wanted to be the next Denzel," he said. When he was in the fifth grade, he won a place in the Academic and Performing Arts Complex at Murrah with a monologue from the movie "Remember the Titans." He earned a place at the Brookhaven school in 10th grade by auditioning with a piece from "A Soldier's Play."
The ESU National Shakespeare Competition aims to assist students to develop analytical skills and a greater appreciation for literature through Shakespeare. Students first compete at their schools, then at the local branch and finally in New York City.
Winning the regional competition allowed Gilbert not only to compete in New York, but to explore the Big Apple as well. He toured Manhattan, ate lunch at The Julliard School and took acting workshops at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
"Since it was Shakespeare's birthday while we were there, we also handed out Shakespeare books at Central Park," he said.
Gilbert says he received true gems from his School of the Arts instructors. Dr. Robert Brooks, theater instructor and Gilbert's coach for the competition, helped him to dissect the early modern English language. "He really exposed me to a new side of acting and taught me to treat each word like a juicy piece of meat," Gilbert said.
Tammy Stanford-Williams, director of dance and movement specialist for theater and voice, taught Gilbert the importance of motion and how to take movement to texts. "She taught me how to understand my own body movements and then the character's," he said.
Gilbert anticipates putting the lessons to good use as he embarks on a new journey: college student. The aspiring actor plans to pursue acting at DePaul University in Chicago. But this summer, Gilbert will kick back, spend time with his family and listen to his favorite music--ranging from hip-hop to alternative rock--and master his PlayStation 3.
"It feels good to have accomplished one of my goals already," Gilbert said.