One of America’s greatest playwrights is kept alive by a new generation, shown in this terrific Netflix documentary

By: Steve Pulaski

Giving Voice is tasked with double duty right off the bat and succeeds valiantly for 87 captivating minutes. It follows the 2018 competitors in the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition. Finalists — all high schoolers — in their respective cities are then flown to New York to see a Broadway play and compete for the national grand prize. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to flex their fledgling theatrical prowess and profess just how deeply resonate Wilson’s stories and characters remain to this day.

The double duty Giving Voice must showcase is both the power of Wilson’s words and the high schoolers having a hand in keeping his work alive today. It effectively does both. As a big fan of Wilson myself, it’s easy for me to bill this as necessary viewing. But if every American read one of Wilson’s plays (most are barely over 100 pages), this world might be a kinder, gentler place.

When Wilson died in 2005, loyal friends and colleagues established this student competition. It affords opportunity to young Black kids like Freedom Martin, who states early on that he always felt his experiences as a Black man were different from experiences had by other black men. “August Wilson was saying these are Black people regardless of what they went through,” he adds. For a young Black woman like Nia Sarfo — so shy in school she’d go days without saying a word — characters like Bernice in Wilson’s riveting Piano Lesson gave her a voice and an identity. And for Callie Holley, she felt validated after perusing Wilson’s catalog: “I felt like that speech was already in me.”

Wilson’s magnum opus is known as the “Century Cycle” (or “The Pittsburgh Cycle”). Ten plays. Ten decades. All covering characters during a specific era, with most set in Pittsburgh. While each play tackles an overarching issue faced by the Black community, all tend to bear the scars of slavery and the uneasy path to upward mobility. Stories like Fences — catapulted into the mainstream by the recent Denzel Washington/Viola Davis movie, both of whom loaning perspective to Wilson’s works in this doc — show a son’s future restrained by his father’s own failed dreams. Other works like The Piano Lesson revolve around a bitter feud between family members over a piano that’s been a centerpiece amongst kin for generations. The sister clings to it as a family heirloom. The brother wants to sell it in hopes of purchasing land and furnishing his pockets. And then you have Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which shows the commodification of Black voices by white record labels that persists to this day.

Documentarians James D. Stern and Fernando Villena walk a tightrope in humanizing both Wilson and the students reading his affecting words and do so with great poise. For lengthy stretches, you watch these young people grow in confidence. They tirelessly rehearse their lines. They speak intimately about their lives. They have far more conviction at their age than most of us. Could you stand before a crowded auditorium and belt a memorized monologue? Moreover, would you even feel the words you were speaking?

For those who haven’t lived the experiences of Black America, Wilson’s works offered a necessary conduit for humanization. It’s relatively easy to write-off the plight of those who don’t look like you when you’re surrounded by people who share your values. When you’re face-to-face with those who live differently, or read works from those very same people, it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to brush off their tribulations. Reading August Wilson would do many some good. Watching Giving Voice would suffice, as it also serves as a fist-pounding reminder to fund arts and nourish English departments in a STEM-driven world. Damn Netflix for burying this one almost as soon as it was released.

NOTE: Giving Voice is available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: A-

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