Giving Voice Review
Directed by Fernando Villena and James D. Stern, Giving Voice is a warm and beautiful documentary which tells the story of a group of high school students competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. For those who don’t know, August Wilson was a Black American playwright who told stories about the lives of working class Black Americans. Gerardo Navarro, the only non-Black competitor featured here, refers to how Wilson “was writing for all of the people who are not constantly seen,” and how this allows his plays to speak to all underdogs across America, regardless of race. Wilson's Century Cycle featured 10 plays with each one representing an individual decade in the 20th century, focusing on Black working class people and the simple complications of their lives.
The competition acts as a way for these teenagers to get into performing. They each pick a monologue from one of Wilson’s plays to perform, refining and perfecting their performance and interpretation of it. Regional heats are held across 20 cities, with each one sending 2 winners onto the main event in New York. If they make it into the final, they are given the opportunity to perform in a Broadway theatre, and the winners are granted a cash prize. The competition is important, as previous winners and competitors have gone on to achieve places at Julliard, win scholarships and we meet Hailey Kilgore, who is now a Tony Award nominee, having competed (and not won) in the August Wilson Monologue Competition a number of years beforehand.
Wilson is shown to be precious to actors who relish the realistic characters he writes, and you’d be hard pushed to find a prolific Black actor who hasn’t performed in one of his plays. Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen McKinley Henderson all at least in part owe their careers to his writing, allowing them to cut their teeth on characters they can fully embody, because they are those characters, and have lived those lives. Viola Davis (also a producer on the film) often has tears in her eyes talking about the importance of these plays and the competition, and how people must be given the opportunity to follow their dreams. They have to find themselves under the mask of what is expected of them, so they don’t implode. Davis says of acting that “it threw me a rope, it sorta saved me.” You can absolutely see that the same is true of these young people in the competition. They need this opportunity more than most of us can imagine.
The teens taking part in the competition are dedicated and incredibly talented. While some are supported by their families, others have had to leave home to pursue their dream, devoting their lives to the craft, and their raw talent and determination is awe inspiring. As young Latinx and Black people they are fighting against what is expected of them, often after seeing the more troubled paths that family members have taken. These kids are precocious and confident, a constant source of positivity throughout the runtime, never allowing themselves to be put off by their perceived limitations or any knockbacks.
Giving Voice chooses to focus on six competitors, all from different backgrounds but still able to find something to pull from these plays. Freedom Martin, Nia Sarfo, Aaron Guy, Gerardo Nevarro, Callie Holley and Cody Merridith live varied lives, but despite aiming to win an individual prize, they support and encourage each other to succeed. They enjoy being given time with other teens as determined and obsessed with theatre as they are.
This documentary acts as the antithesis of TV talent shows, as each young person we see has truly earned their place. They are not looking for fifteen minutes of fame, instead an opportunity to transcend their expected societal trajectory and form a career where they can continue to learn, improve and live the lives they know they deserve. In the case of Giving Voice, the kids are the ones who need us to sit down and listen to them, as they each have something important to say.
Giving Voice is will be available to watch on Netflix from December 11.