Documentary ‘Giving Voice’ is a Reminder of August Wilson’s Powerful Legacy in American Theatre

A still from docmentary 'Giving Voice'. a large group of mainly Black students are huddled together for a photograph all holding tickets for the theatre. They are all smiling widely and posing.

The documentary Giving Voice, directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena, follows high school students from twelve cities across the United States participating in the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition. The competition, named after the renowned playwright, was started in his honour after his death in 2005. The film features a handful of the thousands of students competing each year by performing a monologue from one of Wilson’s plays collectively known as The Pittsburgh Cycle; each focusing on African American life within a different decade of the twentieth century. Interspersed throughout are also interviews with those familiar with Wilson and his work (including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, one of the film’s executive producers), speaking to the playwright’s indelible mark left on American art and life.

In the competition, finalists from each city have the opportunity to fly to New York to perform monologues onstage at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway for a shot at winning the grand cash prize. But Giving Voice is less concerned with the thrill of a win than the process of understanding and embodying Wilson’s work itself.

All of the students featured except one (who is Latino) are Black, and many come from low-income, rough home lives. Wilson’s plays, which eschewed narratives about famous, influential figures in favour of the livelihoods of regular people, focused on how race and class deeply impacted people’s identities and relationships. By acting out Wilson’s work, the students model what the playwright was famous for —his ability to naturalistically capture people by listening and empathising with those around him. The actors, in turn, are similarly attuned to personalities and have a trained ear for the language of Wilson’s texts. Even though the competitors are all in their mid-to-late teens, they still find resonance in the plays which tend to tackle adult themes.

A still from documentary 'Giving Voice'. A young African-American man is onstage, shown in a full-length shot, giving a monologue. He is slim, handsome and dressed plainly in all black. The curtain behind is also black, with steps that resemble book shelves running behind him.

The documentary’s strengths lie in its treatment of these young people not only as competitors but artists who already have a strong command of their craft. Many of them have clear aspirations to become professional actors but aren’t idealistic —they understand that the odds are against them. But taking apart words from “Jitney” or “The Piano Lesson” or “King Hedley II” is in service of developing an artistic practice and understanding their cultural histories, not just a path to potential Broadway fame. 

All of the students followed through semifinals, regionals, and finals in New York City are immensely talented, and it isn’t easy to root for any of them above the others. Though depictions of theatre kids thirsty for attention and competitive to a fault can often be grating, the documentary’s subjects are all genuinely eager and supportive of each other. What’s painful is the understanding that the very nature of the competition means many don’t make the cut for New York. It’s a reminder that so many passionate, hardworking artists are denied the full reach of their potential due to a lack of resources and access they deserve.

Theatre is, of course, one of the arts industries that has suffered some of the largest blows in the pandemic. But COVID-19 only made obvious longstanding problems that have always plagued theatre. As the arts become increasingly commodified, performance has become intertwined with gatekeeping, competition, and a mentality of scarcity. At the end of a long, difficult year, Giving Voice is an encouraging watch that reminds its viewers to have hope for a new generation of artists. August Wilson, as the documentary notes, opened an avenue through his work for many Black artists to express themselves onstage. Likewise, Giving Voice helps viewers imagine a future where young creators continue to pave the path for equity in the arts.

Giving Voice is available to stream exclusively on Netflix from December 11th

by Keno Katsuda

Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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