When Tiana Mudzimurema joined the Robinson Shakespeare Company at the University of Notre Dame Robinson Community Learning Center in 2010, she knew very little about William Shakespeare or his work — she was just following in her older sister’s footsteps.
“My mom was always pushing us to try new things,” Tiana said. “And one of the things I saw my sister do was Shakespeare, and I thought, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it.’”
But as Shakespeare himself wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
And so, determined to blaze her own path, Tiana will travel to New York this week to compete in the National Shakespeare Competition at iconic Lincoln Center Theater in Manhattan.
Hosted annually by the English-Speaking Union of the United States, the National Shakespeare Competition helps students in grades 9-12 develop communication skills and an appreciation of the power of language and literature through the study of English language arts and Shakespeare.
Tiana, a senior at John Adams High School in South Bend, advanced to nationals after winning the Indianapolis Shakespeare Competition in February with a performance of Juliet’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet” and Sonnet 100 — “Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long to speak of that which gives thee all thy might?” — at Butler University.
In doing so, she bested defending state champion Chinyelu Mwaafrika of Indianapolis, who placed in the top 10 nationally last year.
“Even though he did great, I didn’t doubt I would win,” she said of Mwaafrika. “Not in a cocky way. I have great coaches and I’ve done this all of my life. And having negative thoughts wasn’t going to help me achieve my goal.”
“It was beautiful and heartbreaking and strong,” Christine Burgess, Shakespeare outreach director at the Robinson Community Learning Center, said of Tiana’s performance. “And when she took the stage, I loved it because she just took the stage. … She was a presence in the room and she looked fearless.”
Tiana’s success reflects her growth as a student and performer of Shakespeare over the past eight years, during which time she has portrayed a number of the bard’s most iconic characters — the alternately vile and sympathetic Richard III is her favorite — and developed a deep appreciation for his mastery of rhythm and language.
“He’s so intentional about what he writes and how he writes it,” she said.
Tiana was one of two students from this region selected to compete in Indianapolis.
“I don’t believe in acting competitions because they’re so objective,” said Burgess, who managed the selection process. “But I wanted (Tiana) to be able to prove to herself that she could do it.
“She’s going off to college next year, and I think that’s a time for a lot of self-doubt. Am I good enough? Smart enough? Talented enough? And we can tell her that all time, but it’s another thing to believe it herself,” she said. “And now she knows that it’s true.”
“I thought the last play I did was the end of it for me,” Tiana said. “But Ms. Christy gave me this opportunity.”
Since becoming the second Robinson Shakespeare Company actor to win state, Tiana has been busy preparing for nationals with Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame and Burgess’ husband, by studying from a book of more than 80 monologues.
Should Tiana advance to the final round of the competition, she will be required to perform a monologue at random and with just 15 minutes of practice — what’s known as a “cold reading.”
“I have to learn a play every day and understand the context of each monologue. It’s pretty intimidating,” she said.
Fortunately, Burgess said, Tiana’s long history with the material, from “Richard III” to “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” means “there’s a lot of different plays she should already be familiar with.”
Tiana will spend five days in New York, leaving Saturday (April 21) and returning Wednesday (April 25). The competition will take place Monday (April 23). Her family and coaches will stay at a hotel. She will stay at a hostel with the other competitors.
The English-Speaking Union of the United States is paying for the trip.
“It’s always been a place that I wanted to go,” Tiana said of New York. “So I’m thankful that the Robinson Community Learning Center and Notre Dame have afforded me this opportunity.”
According to Burgess, Tiana’s skill as an actor stems from her “openness on stage,” her ability to “really share with the audience, to be vulnerable and be present and take the audience on that journey.”
“She has a certain charisma, that ‘it’ factor that is really rare,” said Jackson. “She comes onstage and you just want to hear what she has to say.”
And when she does speak, Jackson said, her simple approach to the text resonates on an emotional level and allows the words themselves to shine through.
But Tiana’s success is not limited to the stage.
She recently placed second in the Innovate WithIN 2018 Pitch Competition, a statewide business competition, with an idea for an Uber-like peer-to-peer tutoring app called NetWork.
And she will attend Northeastern University in Boston in the fall as one of 12 full-ride Torch Scholars — diverse, talented first-generation college students from across the U.S.
Upward Bound, a Notre Dame TRiO Program that equips local high school students to enter and succeed in higher education, recommended Tiana for the scholarship, which includes a full summer immersion program, intensive academic planning and assessments, in-depth peer and professional mentoring and a wide array of social events that foster group identity and camaraderie.
“Similar to the symbolism of a torch, Tiana has a fire within that will undoubtedly lead the way to greatness,” said Nijinsky Dix, assistant director of Notre Dame TRiO. “She has persevered despite personal and familial hardships, turned cultural barriers into doorways of discovery and exploration and utilized education as a platform to accessibility.
“With Tiana’s diligence, resilience, silver-lining personality and grit, I am certain her ‘torch’ will not only shine brighter at Northeastern University, but will also serve as a guide for those that will follow in her footsteps,” Dix said.
Northeastern, which oversees the Torch Program internally, surprised Tiana with the honor during what she thought was a final interview for the scholarship by online video chat from the Robinson Community Learning Center.
But with questions like “When was Northeastern founded?” and “What is the capital of Antarctica?” the true purpose of the “interview” soon became clear, Tiana said, and “tears just started running down my face. I just couldn’t get any words out.”
Tiana said she plans to major in international business, minor in the arts and act outside of the classroom at Northeastern. Ultimately, she said, she would like to travel and engage with other peoples and cultures as part of any future career.
In addition to family, friends and educators, she credited the Robinson Community Learning Center and Robinson Shakespeare Company for her development as a student and a performer over these past eight years.
“Being a part of Shakespeare has allowed me to find who I am with the people that I love, because it’s so safe and I’ve been part of it since such a young age,” she said. “Being around such loving people allowed me to develop my loving personality, my fearlessness.”
Burgess returned the compliment, describing Tiana as “thoughtful, empathetic, inquisitive, determined and talented.”
“Tiana is a joy to everyone who knows her,” said Burgess, who worked for the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre in Alaska before joining the Robinson Community Learning Center. “It has been a great privilege to watch her grow as a person and an actor.”
“Tiana is a doer,” said Jackson. “There’s very little that I’ve seen Tiana look to achieve that she hasn’t achieved and achieved in a first-class way. She has this indomitable spirit and this smile that brightens every room she walks into. But beneath that smile is this tenacity and fortitude of spirt that make me confident for her future.”