True to its title, “Giving Voice” amplifies the lives and talents of half a dozen high school students from different American cities who aim to be finalists in the national August Wilson monologue competition. Co-directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s inspirational documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival pre-pandemic, chronicles Wilson’s work and how it impacts the lives of these youngsters. Produced by musician John Legend, “Giving Voice” adds marquee value to its six unknowns by including appearances by Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who co-starred in the 2016 adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning play, “Fences.”
Among the film’s subjects, Nia Sarfo prepares a monologue from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” In between her studies, she trains hard in hope of becoming a professional actress. This is the second time around for Freedom Martin, whereas Cody Merridith represents the kid with raw talent. With no formal acting training, he’s entering the competition cold. In Los Angeles, Gerardo Navarro rehearses a segment from “King Hedley II” and enters the contest on the eve of his 17th birthday. Aaron Guy is an Atlanta native who’s having a difficult time getting his parents to accept him as an actor. Callie Holley has chosen a piece from “The Piano Lesson,” and while she would love to win, she’s grateful simply to have the experience.
To participate in the competition, these six — and the many other aspirants — must first audition with a piece from one of August Wilson’s plays. Those who advance to the next round compete against other students in their city, where only one among them will be chosen to perform in New York. For those who do make the cut, they present at the August Wilson Theater, where judges choose the final winners. It’s an excellent way to get your start in theater, and not so different from the way Wilson began his career, the documentary shows.
Clips of Wilson and his time at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center appear in the film. It’s clear that finding a tribe of other writers was comforting for him. The program invites critics to see plays by the retreat participants, but they aren’t allowed to publish reviews because plays written there are in their infant stages — although Wilson’s career was launched because a critic from the New York Times disobeyed the rule and printed a glowing review of one of his plays.
The monologue competition began in 2007, two years after Wilson’s death. Kenny Leon and other friends of Wilson came together and created the program as a way to preserve his plays for a new generation. Wilson’s plays speak about the mass incarceration of Black men and the abuse of Black women, police brutality, legal injustice and issues plaguing everyday people navigating the systemic structures of racism.
This is why his work is essential to people like Davis and Washington, serving to shape their careers. In 2001, Viola Davis won a Tony award for her performance in “King Hedley II,” and both Davis and Washington won Tonys for their performances in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences.” They understand that although Wilson wrote these plays a long time ago, the issues within the text are very current and something young people can relate to.
Filmmakers Stern and Villena use an intimate approach with the participants in the documentary. They combine candid footage with one-on-one interviews, drama coaching and clips of Wilson, devoting roughly equal time to each so nothing feels rushed or left out. Tension builds gradually as the audience takes on the nervousness and anxiety of these kids who are excited to show off what they’ve worked so hard for. This is an event made available for teenagers who need a creative outlet and enjoy the spirit of competition. After watching “Giving Voice” at Sundance, crowds emerged feeling triumphant, and indeed, the film went on to win an audience prize.
“Winning is not going to get you anything because as soon as you have that award in your hand, three famous words are going to haunt your life. And the three famous words are: So what now?” says Davis — and she has a point.
This isn’t a film about winners and losers. The coaches and judges instill in the contestants that trying your best is still a great achievement. What now for Gerardo, Nia, Freedom, Cody, Callie and Aaron? Despite not having clear answers, they remain positive, no matter the outcome. The pursuit of the acting dream doesn’t stop with the competition, as each has plans to continue beyond high school in hopes of getting that one lucky break.
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