August Wilson took on the extraordinary task of writing a play in every decade of the 20th century. Taken together, “The American Century Cycle” presents a chronicle of black life in America, via Pittsburgh, where all the plays take place. Some of them received the Hollywood treatment, including Ma Rainey’s black background (coming to Netflix on December 18th) and Fences, both with Viola Davis.
But the new documentary Give voice, about the teens taking part in August Wilson’s annual monologue competition, offers the most vivid account of his indelible legacy. For a theater currently in forced hibernation, it’s a love letter to the stage featuring a crop of tenacious and insightful young performers. For anyone, young or old, who’s struggled to find their place in the world – or who’s been looking around lately and wondering where the heck we’re going from here – this is the most inspiring that you will see all year round.
Tony winner Kenny Leon, a frequent Wilson collaborator 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 died of cancer at age 60.
Give voice, winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Favorite Award this year, recounts the tenth iteration of the competition in 2018. Thousands of students across the country, mostly African-Americans, choose monologues to perform one of ten Wilson’s pieces. The film follows six students who advance beyond the regional rounds, held in major cities like Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, to participate in the finale on Broadway, at the August Wilson Theater.
It was Wilson’s widow, Costanza Romero, who first contacted director James D. Stern to make a documentary about the competition. Stern and co-director Fernando Villena, who collaborated on the backstage doc Every little step, on the casting process for the rebirth of Broadway A choir line, has teamed up to undertake the project.
Stern and Villena started out by casting a wide net, following a number of students into the early stages of competition, gradually focusing on those who excelled and made it through to subsequent events.
“What’s amazing is how little has changed, how much children’s stories and concerns are reflected in Wilson’s plays,” Stern said. The daily beast. “The children were really surprised by this because [most of them] did not know August Wilson before the competition. Then all of a sudden here is someone writing for them.
Understanding the past in order to find one’s way is the dominant theme of the film. In a macro sense, this is what makes “The American Century Cycle” so vital and enduring. Davis, Washington, and actor Stephen McKinley Henderson all testify in the documentary to Wilson’s depth of understanding of the universal human condition. His plays demonstrate, through the intimate psychology of individuals, how the lives of black Americans have unfolded under the weight of history.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to say, “This is the black experience, and that’s why.” He was the first writer to make me feel, he knows it.“
– Nia sarfo
For their part, many young people who discover Wilson’s work in the film recognize for the first time that they are not alone in their experiences.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to say, ‘This is the experience of black people, and that’s why,'” Nia Sarfo, one of the students featured in Give voice, Told The daily beast. “He was the first writer to make me want to, he knows it.”
Sarfo competes with a speech from Wilson’s 1984 play Come and Gone by Joe Turner, set in the 1910s. Her character Molly Cunningham, a beautiful and strong-willed 26-year-old woman, speaks with ironic assurance of the care and loyalty of men.
“I’ve found that the harder you try to hang on to them, the easier it is for a girl to pull them off,” she says. “That’s why I don’t trust anyone other than the good Lord above, and I love no one other than my mom.
The extent to which Wilson “ just knows ” is a sentiment echoed by almost everyone in the film.
“He’s talking about us, he’s talking about me,” said Washington, who stepped out with Davis in the 2016 film adaptation of Fences.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s like my aunt up there!’” He said in the documentary about recognizing his own life and his characters in Wilson’s plays. “Because [the students] identifying so much with him is very easy to embody, ”Davis says in the film. “Sometimes you need a physical manifestation of a dream and who you are.”
Romero says in the film of her husband’s work: “August talks about the massive incarceration of black men and black women, police brutality, ordinary people who negotiate every part of their existence because of the larger structures of racism. . “
Another contestant, Gerardo Navarro, who is Mexican-American, says in the film that Wilson’s handwriting can speak to anyone society often overlooks.
Navarro performs a monologue of the main 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 cut his face with a knife. “How can I go wrong for killing him?” he says. “If a burglar breaks into a white man’s house to steal his TV and the white man shoots him, they’re not saying he’s wrong. The law understands this. They pat him on the back and tell him to go home.
Wilson’s plays allow young readers to recognize that they are part of a rich history, with all its pleasures and torments. Her work also assures contestants that their voices belong to the theater. “Especially as a colored kid you see Shakespeare and kind of like, ‘Okay, how am I going to fit in there?’” Sarfo told the Daily Beast.
“August Wilson made me feel like I had a place. I don’t have to come here and cold interrupt and pretend I’m something I’m not; I can be all that I am.“
– Nia sarfo
“The theater is naturally a predominantly white space,” says Sarfo. “August Wilson made me feel like I had a place. I don’t have to come here and cold interrupt and pretend I’m something I’m not; I can be all that I am. And all that I am is great. I can stand up in all my glory and say, ‘This is me and I’m proud of it.’ “
These are the kind of revelations about coming of age that students experience throughout Give voice. Whether they intend to continue taking action or not, engaging in Wilson’s work allows students to better understand who they are and whom they should embrace rather than shy away from what makes them unique.
“Growing up, I thought the theater was, ‘I’m going to go on stage, and I’m going to be that character, someone who’s not me,’” Navarro told the Daily Beast. “What I realized is that I don’t have to be anything other than myself. Everything in it, from the color of my skin to the beating of my heart, is enough, ”he says.
It’s a lesson Julius Tennon, an executive producer of the film (and Davis’s husband), wanted to teach students about the process of making and releasing the documentary. “I told them, ‘There is no one 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.
Give voice Also serves as a vigorous testament to the importance of arts education, as it captures revelations that students may not have experienced in class the same way they do on stage.
“It’s different when you hear a story from someone who has lived it,” Sarfo said, as opposed to learning from the history books. “You have all the facts of a certain period” running in a play, “but you also have an emotion on top of that, and how it all [historical] the details made people feel.
Theater and the creative arts also help students understand their place in the grand scheme of things. “It’s important to have this in school so that the kids can explore how they see the world, how they see themselves, how they see themselves fit in,” Tennon said.
Villena, who didn’t know Wilson before co-directing the film, sees this as a problem with the 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 as he should be. We all hope this will change because [“The American Century Cycle”] is that incredible portal to the 20th century black experience that he left for everyone to explore and learn. “
As much as students learn from Wilson’s work, they are likely to inspire viewers as much as they have filmmakers.
“I came back thinking that the students taught me a lot more than, certainly in my case, I taught them,” Stern said. The two directors continue to marvel at the students’ perseverance and positive attitude, especially as they were involved in the film’s release in an unprecedented year. “I was struck by their optimism and their vulnerability, which translates into their strength,” Villena said. “How they were able to tap into this vulnerability and how they were willing to be seen, not only on stage, but in life.”
“It has certainly been difficult, but I think we all find new ways to come together, to create and share stories, and that is the essence of theater.“
– Gerardo Navarro
Some students are studying performance at a time when live theater is on an indefinite hiatus, including Sarfo at the University of Southern California and Navarro at Carnegie Mellon.
“It’s really sad that you can’t see, hug, and work with your cohort. It really hurts, ”Sarfo said. “But I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to be home because I have more time to sit and think. It’s 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 was so heartbreaking, but he really is the best teacher.
Navarro is also wary and optimistic about the future. “It’s really tough, but I think we’re all finding new ways to come together, to create and share stories, and that’s the essence of theater,” he said. “One day, hopefully in the near future, when we can all be in each other’s presence again, I think it will be more magical than ever.
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