Sundance 2020: Giving Voice marvelous documentary about theater’s power for youth through August Wilson’s plays

One of the major stories from Sundance this year has been the spotlight on youth activism, creative expression and passion for enlightenment. Giving Voice, a documentary directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena, is a marvelous new entry in the canon highlighting those stories.

A particularly memorable passage is the beautiful string of excerpts from the young actors who are performing in the finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition on a Broadway stage. Their performances are so compelling. It is a stellar moment to appreciate how a playwright’s legacy is being sustained with the passion of youth who see Wilson’s work as a pillar in their formative education and motivations for developing their passions as careers.

Many of the competitors were just infants when Wilson died in 2005 from liver cancer. A Pittsburgh native, he received many honors in his career, including two Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards. Among his most widely known works is a series of 10 plays, the Pittsburgh Cycle, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. More recent audiences will recognize his work in the 2016 film Fences, produced and directed by Denzel Washington, who appears in Giving Voice along with actor Viola Davis. This documentary chronicles the meaning and impact of Wilson’s body of work for a new generation of actors.

James D. Stern, director of Giving Voice, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Regarding the playwright, who is shown in clips from archival footage of interviews along with a Howard University commencement address, Harry J. Elam, the author of The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (2004), wrote, “He has changed the face of American theater, and his emergence has enabled other black writers to follow. The viability of Africans in America, their place within the American dream, is central to Wilson’s theatrical project. His singular commitment to exploring the experiences of African Americans over time has enabled him to delve into the particular, but also see the process of historic evolution.”

Stern, with an extensive theatrical career that includes two Tony Awards as a producer, and Villena frame the film precisely in this spirit of Wilson’s impact. They augment the competition by including the personal stories of the six students they follow in the competition. The young actors already are learning to manifest their instincts with polish, relevance and impressive interpretation. If there was a film to make the case of why the performing arts matter in education, Giving Voice delivers it solidly. One of the students comes from a school where there is no theater program but the English teacher is as dedicated as his student to help him realize his goal. The film inspires viewers to swell with pride in watching a talented pool of competitors perform complex monologues without missing a beat, skipping a beat and infusing their rendering with convincing portrayals of the characters featured.

Fernando Villena, director of Giving Voice, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Stern, in an interview with The Utah Review, says he is “deeply familiar” with Wilson’s oeuvre and it would be impossible to make this film, “unless you had that experience with his plays.” The rhythm of the documentary flows with the energy that animates Wilson’s plays. The directors excel at juxtaposing the students’ personal lives with the monologues they have selected from the plays, thus providing a context that needs no explanation in observing the unique ways in which Wilson’s theatrical voice has connected with the students.

August Wilson.

As shown in the film, the directors traveled to cities around the country, as each regional competition whittled down 20 semi-finalists to two students who would go to New York City for the finals. “Some of the students immediately jumped out on our radar,” Stern says, “and it turned out that we picked the right ones to follow.”

The appearances of Washington and Davis along with Broadway producer Jack Viertel are integrated into the film without interrupting the natural rhythm of the documentary narrative. Gerardo Navarro, a 17-year-old Mexican-American student from Los Angeles, wins the 2018 competition. His monologue performance is a knockout but he also explains the impact of Wilson’s work with the same acute awareness that Elam’s perspective about the playwright’s contributions indicates. It is fascinating to see how the students slip into their appropriate characters for the performances.

Giving Voice is a project that received a Utah Film Center‘s fiscal sponsorship and the center’s co-founder Geralyn Dreyfous (Impact Partner Films) is one of the film’s executive producers.

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