The everyday hopes and broken hearts of African Americans were dramatized in August Wilson’s 10-part American Century Cycle. And every year since Wilson’s death in 2005, thousands of students from 12 different cities have vied for the chance to perform a monologue from one of his plays in the final round of a competition on Broadway. James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s uplifting documentary Giving Voice (streaming on Netflix) further explores this competition and explains how the playwright’s legacy is inspiring a new generation.
The interviews with actors Viola Davis, one of the film’s executive producers, Denzel Washington, and Stephen McKinley Henderson (all from the film adaptation of Wilson’s “Fences”) are split between segments following teenagers who progress through the 2018 iteration of the competition.
This is a film that adores the way action can instill determination in young people. Gerardo Navarro of South Central Los Angeles said he did not know that there was a room in the theater for Latinx actors, but felt that he was seen by Wilson’s work. Houston-born Callie Holley sees her mother, who survived cancer and the 2008 financial crisis, in the role of Berniece from The Piano Lesson. And Chicago high school Cody Merridith, who appears in “King Hedley II,” naturally senses the pain that is present in Wilson’s work. Not only does Cody come from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where poverty is a daily struggle for many of its residents, but his school is devoid of any arts program.
The children hear each other not only in the voices of these characters, but also their aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors. You hear the timeless struggle of black America across the generations. They lift the emotional weight of Ma Rainey, Cutler and Hedley with a maturity well beyond their years and come out strengthened. And when you capture those moments, “Giving Voice” becomes as inspiring as Wilson’s words, as fulfilling as any teenager’s self-esteem statement.
Rated PG-13 for the power of theater. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. Watch on Netflix.