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For more than a decade, since a year after the untimely death of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson, an annual monologue competition for high school students culminates with 20 finalists on a Broadway stage. Giving Voice is documentary that follows the students as they choose a passage from Wilson’s 10-play cycle that covers every decade of the 20th century.
They’re judged on their focus, accuracy and understanding of the text. And while the contest has three grand prizes, the film depicts all of the entrants as winners, because as we see, they mature and set goals for their futures, and for many, its the first time they see a world outside their own lives.
While the final winners will surprise you, this is not a competition story or a “making of” tale anointing future actors and directors. Instead, it’s a film that shows how every student can open their minds to the idea that they have a voice and a chance to use it. As finalist Aaron Guy says, “August Wilson showed me I’m worth seeing.”
The high schoolers — some disadvantaged, all feeling overlooked and underappreciated — get the opportunity to shine. Their stories are bookended by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who shed perspective on the profound impact Wilson’s stories have had on all audiences, and especially Black culture. “The plays feel familiar,” says Washington.
It’s a true-life story full of hope, joy, happy endings … and a gut-wrenching John Legend song over closing credits. As cameras follow a few students rehearsing and preparing, each viewer will cheer for their personal favorites. Many have the potential to be voices we’ll hear more from tomorrow. But the ultimate prizewinners are a big surprise.
Kids who could use encouragement and motivation will be inspired by the exuberance, dedication and transformation of the students. Theater buffs and August Wilson fans will be enthralled. Those who enjoy the new Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be able to do a deeper dive into more of Wilson’s work.
This is a feel-good film, brimming with optimism and hope, suitable for most family members.