Giving Voices (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Young students channeling August Wilson’s legacy

Netflix documentary film “Giving Voices”, which was released in last week, follows a number of different participants of one significant annual cultural event commemorating and enlivening the legacy of one of the greatest American playwrights in our modern time. Simply following the progress of the event through its several participants, the documentary did a solid job of presenting its human subjects with respect and admiration, and this surely reminds us of the importance of racial/cultural representation in US.

The playwright in question is August Wilson, who was called the “theater’s poet of black America” for a number of monumental plays including “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Although he died at the age of 60 in 2005, he is still regarded as one of the giants in American modern literature, and I must tell you that one of the prominent Broadway theaters was actually renamed the August Wilson Theatre shortly after his death (It is the first Broadway theater to bear the name of an African American, by the way).

Since it was founded a few years after Wilson’s death, the August Wilson monologue competition has been steadily advancing with more participants, and the early part of the documentary gives some glimpses into how those young participants prepare for the competition. Each of them selects a monologue from Wilson’s plays, and then, after lots of preparation and practice, they will perform each own selected monologue in front of several judges to evaluate their performance.

Before the national competition to be held on Broadway in the New York City, the participants must pass the regional competition held in their respective cities, and the documentary later introduces to us different young students who respectively have each own background and personality. In case of an African American lad named Freedom, he has been quite passionate about acting since he played a small supporting part in one of Shakespeare’s plays, and his deep love of acting is evident from the walls of his art high school dormitory room. In case of an African American girl named Nia, her aspiration for acting has always been supported by her mother despite their economic hardship during recent years, and the same thing can be said about Gerardo, a Latino boy who is simply following his childhood dream with considerable dedication.

The most memorable figure among the participants shown in the documentary is probably Cody, an African American lad who had a fair share of gloomy experiences as living in an urban slum area of Chicago. Although his high school does not have a drama class, his interest in acting has been encouraged a lot by his supportive English teacher, and both of them are surely delighted when Cody later passes the primary competition preceding the regional one where only 20 contestants can participate.

The documentary subsequently gives us a series of clips showing the regional competitions held around various cities in US, and you will notice how enthusiastically and passionately those contestants try really hard in front of their judges. Yes, they are all nervous around the time when they are about to enter the stage together and then deliver each own selected monologue one by one, but they go all the way with Wilson’s rough poetry when time comes for them, and I must say that I was very impressed by some of the performances shown in the documentary. They bring bits of their own experience and personality to Wilson’s words for making these words feel alive and exciting on the stage, and their good efforts may make you want to see any of Wilson’s plays performed on stage someday.

Wilson’s plays are revered for not only their artistic qualities but also their cultural significance, and several prominent performers including Viola Davis, who incidentally participated in the production of the documentary as one of its executive producers, and Denzel Washington willingly talk about why Wilson’s work have been so important to millions of African Americans including them. Through his acclaimed plays about various African American characters, Wilson contributed a lot to the cultural representation of African Americans in US, and his works still resonate with the present status of the American society because, despite lots of social changes, the American society is still not a very good place for its African American citizens due to that lingering social virulence of racism and social inequality.

Wilson was really serious and passionate about giving cultural voices to African American people, and he was particularly dedicated to completing the Pittsburgh Cycle, which consists of 10 different plays ambitiously exploring the African American culture and society during the 20th century. Around the time when he was about to finish the last play of this series, he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, but he chose to focus more on completing his last work instead of getting any medical treatment, and he did complete it shortly before his death.

Directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena, “Giving Voices” is an engaging documentary which not only gives a wide look into a valuable American cultural event but also informs us enough on the significance of August Wilson’s plays, and I was entertained and moved by the passion felt from those young participants shown in the documentary. Sure, it goes without saying that not all of them will be actors in the future, but they all are touched by Wilson’s enduring art in one way or another, and they will certainly be the keepers and givers of the flames ignited by his works.

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