‘Giving Voice’ Documentary: Teens Learn the Power of August Wilson’s Words

There is a much-needed revival underway of the work of the great American playwright August Wilson. His plays are being further cemented as one of the defining voices onstage of the Black American experience. Much of this revival is happening through film, which is fitting for our age of mass media. Netflix’s documentary “Giving Voice” is a brief but inspiring combination of screen and stage where young students partake in a national competition to perform Wilson’s words and hopefully win to open doors into acting. Directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena profile six high school students from different campuses, including Atlanta and Chicago, partaking in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Some come from working class families, others from homes where the arts are scoffed at. But they come together through the unique power and vision of Wilson’s blistering work.

“We wanted to really honor August Wilson and his legacy and why his legacy is on par with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill,” said Stern to Entertainment Voice joined by Villena. “This was not meant to be a competition film.” The resulting documentary is both a profile of young lives in competition and in many ways the hard craft of acting. Among the profiled would-be thespians are Nia Sarfo, who is performing a monologue  from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Cody Merredith, who is self-taught and has the promise of raw talent, and Gerardo Navarro, the only Latino in the batch who feels Wilson’s words have a universal power that reaches to anyone from a minority community. He has chosen a particularly edgy portion of “King Hedley II.” Aaron Guy is an all-too common case. He desires to be an actor above anything else but has been shunned by a family dismissive of artistic pursuits. Callie Holley is the one who is just happy to be here, win or lose. All these young lives come together via the desire to escape into the art of both Wilson’s writing and acting itself. We see them train and transform, becoming onstage someone wholly different from who we see speak in front of the cameras. In-between their segments we also hear from Denzel Washington, who recently directed Wilson’s “Fences” as a feature film and has vowed to bring the playwright’s entire body of work to cinema, and Viola Davis, who stars in Netflix’s adaptation of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is produced by Washington. They discuss both the importance of Wilson and the magic of acting.

“I wasn’t too familiar with August Wilson’s work at the beginning of the project,” said Villena. “But I really enjoy the craft of acting. It’s a powerful craft to learn and the opportunity was unique here to shine a light on what it actually takes to go up on that stage. You have to be really brave to do that. There’s a craft and process to learn.” Also produced by John Legend, much of “Giving Voice” avoids emphasizing too much the idea of kids trying to outdo each other. In fact, there’s a real sense of camaraderie from the participants. The real challenges manifest in how you must learn to explore a piece of drama for everything it entails, whether in its upfront meanings or richer subtexts. Some talents Merredith seem to naturally evoke the depths of the monologues because they can connect to them directly from life experience. Wilson’s characters can be downtrodden, questioning everything from God to the state. Like Kafka, some are entrapped by forces out of their control. There is a startling intimacy to how the subjects of the documentary discuss their own life experiences, such as coming from struggling homes or dismissive families, and how Wilson’s work seems to mirror their feelings.

“Shooting this documentary has been the most insane experience ever,” said Nia Sarfo. “I was 17 in the film and my puberty was on camera (laughs). It was really magnificent. Watching it I re-experienced everything that was going on in my mind, including the pressure I felt, the weight. Performing August Wilson just had a certain kind of weight because the language resonated with me so heavily. To look back on this film, it’s just incredible. The creators of this film had such a beautiful idea.” There’s almost a heroism to how the students try to juggle school and other adolescent responsibilities with the training that goes into preparing for the competition, from working with drama teachers to soaking in the text alone at home. “It’s scary when you’re in a public place and people are wondering, ‘why does she have a camera following her around? Who is this person?’ It adds another layer of pressure. But for me it forced me to see myself as much as possible. As scary and as wild as it can be, especially when you’re doing a monologue on camera, it forces you to speak your truth.”

“What’s so beautiful about the competition is that it never felt like a competition. It really felt like we were going up there and it felt like our purpose was to honor August Wilson’s words,” said Gerardo Navarro. “I never felt like I had to compete with anyone. We expressed what we felt about the words from our own experiences…what is so well done in the film that you get to understand August Wilson through the students, you get to see how big of an impact he has on those who just see his work.” For Navarro Wilson’s work is not confined in terms of broad truths to just one community, it can appeal to all peoples of color. His own delivery onstage has a fierce potency. “I remember sitting back after reading Wilson for the first time and feeling it was something I could finally relate to, that there was a piece of me being put onstage and being presented.”

As the day of the main event nears in New York City, the competitors seem to have grown in skill right before our eyes. They hit the stage and evoke such maturity and feeling that we dearly home they consider this as a profession, because they have gained such an understanding of the art form. “You can learn how to act. You can learn how to write. There’s talent involved of course, but there’s a craft,” said Villena. “Cody, for example, was raw. So we see him go through the process of getting coached, and learning to find his voice in ways he would have never been able to on his own. We needed to see more of that in the story and Cody provided that.”

“One of the things about documentaries, and few people talk about this, is that you have to get lucky,” added Stern. “Your subjects have to deliver in a way where you can only hope. But these kids are just magical. But you have to admit you have to get lucky.” In a way, “Giving Voice” also arrives just as we need more hopeful stories such as this, of youth discovering the great artists of yesteryear and keeping them alive while advancing into the future. “It’s a really optimistic film. I think in a year that’s been so not optimistic. At least it was not optimistic until the election (laughs). But it has a light that shines through. These kids are both optimistic and strong. It’s important to honor a voice like August Wilson who was writing about things only now being spoken about openly, and he was writing about them a long time ago. So we’re really proud to make a film that is speaking to all of that but having it come out in this year is kind of astonishing. I hope kids that are younger than our subjects can take from their strength and resiliency.”

Giving Voice” begins streaming Dec. 11 on Netflix.