The United States has produced a mighty amount of profound playwrights — among them Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman — but the American bard who is most often likened to Shakespeare is the late, and by any dramaturgic measure, great August Wilson.
Currently airing on Netflix is a documentary titled Giving Voice, directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena and based on the August Wilson Monologue Competition, which has been an annual event since 2007 (Mr. Wilson died in 2005). This film won the Festival Favorite Award, chosen from among the 128 features screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Giving Voice focuses on six supremely talented high school students from around the nation as they compete in the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York City. Among the talking-head authorities on the work of Mr. Wilson, we hear from award-winning performers Viola Davis and Denzel Washington (both aficionados of the Wilson catalogue, who worked together in Mr. Wilson’s Fences, with Ms. Davis who is currently starring as the title character in Mr. Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, also showing on Netflix); both actors add gravitas and prestige to the film.
Not only does Giving Voice give us an overview of Mr. Wilson’s oeuvre — which includes ten plays, each set within a decade of the 20th Century — from where the monologues are drawn, we also gain insight into teen competitors such as Gerardo Navarro, from an impoverished neighborhood in South Los Angeles; Nia Sarfo, who lives with in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother on Chicago’s Southside; and Cody Merridith, also from Chicago, whose acting gifts are apparent but who doesn’t make it past the local round of competition to the New York finals.
Nevertheless, each of these high schoolers displays commitment to the process of developing and delivering a monologue from the canon of Mr. Wilson’s work. Their payoff is more than the monetary awards and the trophies given to those who place in the one, two, and three top spots in the final competition and more than the paid trip to Broadway.
The rewards found in this artistic relay are in witnessing these talented teens fulfill their goals, artistically and academically, and where that may take them in the years following the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition. All of the competitors featured in this heartfelt documentary have gone on to pursue higher education at such renowned institutions as Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Southern California, and the prestigious Juilliard School.
Not only does Giving Voice deliver lessons on the estimable August Wilson and the art and skill of playwriting and acting, it is a true and truly inspirational tale of the benefits gained through dedicating oneself to a goal.
Giving Voice is accessible at anytime through Netflix.