The everyday hopes and heartbreaks of African-Americans were dramatized in August Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle. And every year, since Wilson’s death in 2005, thousands of students from 12 different cities vie for the chance to perform a monologue from one of his plays in a competition’s final round on Broadway. James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s uplifting documentary “Giving Voice” (streaming on Netflix) further explores this competition and explains how the playwright’s legacy is inspiring a new generation.
Interviews with the actors Viola Davis, who is one of the film’s executive producers, Denzel Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson (all from the film adaptation of Wilson’s “Fences”) are interspersed between segments that follow teenagers advancing through the 2018 iteration of the competition.
This is a film that worships the ways acting can instill determination in young people. Gerardo Navarro, from South Central Los Angeles, says he was unaware a space for Latinx actors existed in theater, but feels seen by Wilson’s work. Callie Holley, hailing from Houston, sees her mother, who weathered cancer and the 2008 financial crisis, in the character of Berniece from “The Piano Lesson.” And the Chicago high schooler Cody Merridith, who performs from “King Hedley II,” innately feels the hurt present in Wilson’s work. Not only does Cody come from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where poverty is a daily struggle for many of its residents, but also his school is without an arts program of any kind.
In addition to hearing themselves in the voices of these characters, the kids hear their aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors, too. They hear the timeless struggle of Black America reaching across the generations. They heave the emotional weight of Ma Rainey, Cutler and Hedley with a maturity far beyond their years and come out empowered. And in capturing these moments, “Giving Voice” becomes as inspirational as Wilson’s words, as fulfilling as each teen’s declaration of self-worth.
Rated PG-13 for the power of theater. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. Watch on Netflix.