August Wilson set himself the extraordinary task of writing a play set in each decade of the 20th century. Taken together, “The American Century Cycle” presents a sweeping chronicle of Black life in America, via Pittsburgh where most of the plays are set. Some of them have received the Hollywood treatment, including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (coming to Netflix December 18) and Fences, both starring Viola Davis.
But the new documentary Giving Voice, about teenagers competing in the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, offers the most vivid account yet of his indelible legacy. For a theater currently in enforced hibernation, it’s a love letter to the stage featuring a crop of tenacious and insightful young artists. For anyone, young or old, who’s struggled to find their place in the world—or looked around lately and wondered where the heck we go from here—it’s the most inspiring film you’ll see all year.
Tony winner Kenny Leon, a frequent collaborator of Wilson’s who directed Davis and Denzel Washington in Fences on Broadway, helped create the competition in 2007 to keep the playwright’s legacy alive, two years after Wilson’s death from cancer at age 60.
Giving Voice, winner of this year’s Sundance Film Festival Favorite Award, chronicles the competition’s tenth iteration in 2018. Thousands of students from around the country, most of them African American, choose monologues to perform from one of Wilson’s ten plays. The film follows six students who advance past regional rounds, held in major cities like Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles, to compete in the finals on Broadway, at the August Wilson Theater.
It was Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, who first approached director James D. Stern about making a documentary of the competition. Stern and co-director Fernando Villena, who collaborated on the backstage documentary Every Little Step, about the casting process for the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, teamed up to take on the project.
Stern and Villena started by casting a wide net, following a number of students in the competition’s early stages, gradually narrowing their focus to those who excelled and moved ahead to subsequent rounds.
“What’s astonishing is how little has changed, how much the kids' own stories and concerns are reflected in Wilson’s plays,” Stern told The Daily Beast. “The kids were really amazed by that, because [most of them] didn't know August Wilson before the competition. Then all of a sudden, here’s someone who’s writing for them.”
Understanding the past in order to forge a path forward is the film’s dominant reverberating theme. In a macro sense, that’s what makes “The American Century Cycle” such a vital and lasting body of work. Davis, Washington, and actor Stephen McKinley Henderson all testify in the documentary to the depth of Wilson’s understanding of the universal human condition. His plays demonstrate, through the intimate psychology of individuals, how Black American lives have unfolded under the weight of history.
For their part, many young people who discover Wilson’s work in the film recognize for the first time that they’re not alone in their experiences.
“He doesn’t necessarily need to say, ‘This is the Black experience, and this is why,’” Nia Sarfo, one of the students featured in Giving Voice, told The Daily Beast. “He was the first writer who ever made me feel like, he just knows.”
Sarfo competes with a speech from Wilson’s 1984 play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in the 1910s. Her character Molly Cunningham, a strong-willed and beautiful woman of 26, speaks with wry assurance about distrusting men’s attentions and loyalty.
“I done found out the harder you try to hold onto them, the easier it is for some gal to pull them away,” she said. “That’s why I don’t trust nobody but the good Lord above, and I don’t love nobody but my mama.”
The extent to which Wilson ‘just knows’ is a sentiment echoed by nearly everyone in the film.
“He’s talking about us, he’s talking about me,” said Washington, who directed himself and Davis in the 2016 film adaptation of Fences.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s like my aunt up there!’” he says in the documentary of recognizing his own life and its characters in Wilson’s plays. “Because [the students] identify with it so much, it’s very easy to embody,” says Davis in the film. “Sometimes you need a physical manifestation of a dream, and of who you are.”
Romero says in the film of her husband’s work: “August speaks about the mass incarceration of Black men and Black women, police brutality, everyday people negotiating every part of their existence because of the grander structures of racism.”
Another contestant, Gerardo Navarro, who is Mexican American, says in the film that Wilson’s writing can speak to everyone whom society often overlooks.
Navarro performs a monologue by the title character in Wilson’s 1999 play King Hedley II, set in the 1980s. Hedley recounts the injustice of being prosecuted for killing a man who first slashed his face with a knife. “How can I be wrong for killing him?” he says. “If a burglar break in a white man’s house to steal his TV and the white man shoot him they don’t say he wrong. The law understand that. They pat him on the back and tell him to go on home.”
Wilson’s plays allow young readers to recognize they’re part of a rich history, with all its pleasures and torments. His work also assures the contestants that their voices belong in the theater. “Especially as a kid of color, you see Shakespeare and you kind of wonder like, ‘Okay, how am I gonna fit into this?’” Sarfo told The Daily Beast.
“Theater is naturally a predominantly white space,” Sarfo says. “August Wilson made me feel like I have a place. I don’t have to come in here and code switch and pretend that I’m something that I’m not; I can be everything that I am. And everything that I am is glorious. I can stand in all my glory and say, ‘This is me and feel proud of it.’”
These are the sort of coming-of-age revelations that students experience throughout Giving Voice. Whether they are intent on pursuing acting further or not, engaging with Wilson’s work delivers the students a greater understanding of who they are, and that they ought to embrace rather than shy away from what makes them unique.
“Growing up, I thought theater was, ‘I’m going to go on stage, and I’m going to be this character, someone that’s not me,’” Navarro told The Daily Beast. “What I realized is that I don’t have to be anything but myself. Everything inside, from my skin color to my heartbeat, is enough,” he says.
That’s a lesson that Julius Tennon, an executive producer on the film (and Davis’ husband), wanted to impart to the students over the process of making and releasing the documentary. “I told them, ‘There’s no one uniquely like you. In your journey as an artist, just focus on the authenticity of who you are and your voice, lead with that,’” Tennon told The Daily Beast.
Giving Voice also serves as a vigorous testament to the importance of arts education, as it captures revelations students may not have experienced in a classroom the same way they do on stage.
“It's different when you hear a story from a person who has experienced it,” Sarfo said, as opposed to learning from history books. “You have all the facts of a certain time period” operating in a play, “but you also have emotion sitting on top of that, and how all those [historical] details made people feel.”
Theater and creative arts also help students understand their place in the grander scheme of things. “It’s important to have that in school so kids can explore how they see the world, how they see themselves, how they see themselves fitting in,” Tennon said.
Villena, who wasn’t familiar with Wilson before co-directing the film, considers that a problem with curriculum in American schools. “I don't think his legacy is written yet,” he told The Daily Beast. “Wilson is not being taught in school right now like he should be. We all hope that that is going to change, because [“The American Century Cycle”] is this incredible portal to the 20th century Black experience that he's left for everybody to explore and to learn from.”
As much as the students learn from Wilson’s work, they are likely to inspire viewers as much as they have the filmmakers.
“I came away thinking like that the students taught me a lot more than, certainly in my case, I taught them,” Stern said. Both directors continue to marvel at the students’ perseverance and positive attitude, particularly as they participate in the film’s release during an unprecedented year. “I was struck by their optimism and by their vulnerability, which translates to their strength,” Villena said. “How they were able to tap into that vulnerability, and how willing they were to be seen, not just on stage, but in life.”
Some of the students are studying performance at a time when live theater is on indefinite pause, including Sarfo, at the University of Southern California, and Navarro at Carnegie Mellon.
“It's definitely sad, not being able to see and hug and work alongside your cohort. That really hurts,” Sarfo said. “But I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be at home, because I have more time to sit and think. That is so essential as an artist, to be able to look at the world around you and see how it affects or inspires your work. It’s been so heartbreaking, but it has really been the greatest teacher.”
Navarro is likewise circumspect and ultimately hopeful about the future. “It’s definitely been tough, but I think we’re all finding new ways of coming together and creating and sharing stories, and that’s the essence of theater,” he said. “One day, hopefully in the near future, when we can all be in one another’s presence again, I think it’ll be more magical than it’s ever been.”