Review: August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle” Continues to Roll On and Inspire in “Giving Voice”

As a six-foot Black kid growing up in Oklahoma, Freedom Martin knew what was expected of him, as he recounts in “Giving Voice,” with his basketball coach wondering why he’d leave practice for drama class rehearsals. His recollection comes as he stands a bit in awe of where he is now in Chicago, in front of his room where Playbills and headshots hang, not yet having many professional accomplishments to speak of, but having broken free of whatever preconceived notion people had of him before was success enough on the eve of competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition and in slipping into the shoes of Bynum Walker from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Martin could actually feel free to be himself.

Although the legacy of Wilson, one of the greatest of playwrights, is incalculable, co-directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena manage to quantify the enduring power of his work through the lens of the 10th edition of the monologue competition created in the wake of his untimely death in 2005, just after he finished his monumental 10-play “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” chronicling African-American life in the 20th century. As Stephen McKinley Henderson, a frequent star of Wilson productions, notes, Wilson never had interest in writing about iconic historical figures, preferring instead to chronicle those living with the burden of history, and “Giving Voice” evades hagiography by focusing on those keeping his words alive, though it becomes clear that is a two-way street as the deep humanity of his work allows the teens performing monologues that ties into their own experience in a way few other dramatic texts do.

The premise of a competition affords “Giving Voice” a natural and familiar shape, though like Stern’s previous “Every Little Step,” which Villena was an editor on and followed the audition process for “A Chorus Line,” there isn’t much attention paid to who emerges victorious when the play’s the thing, an ongoing fount of inspiration and opportunity, as Wilson carved out a place in the theater for Black actors to build their careers when those roles weren’t available elsewhere. With students such as Martin making their way to New York from various cities across the country, you can see the broadening of their horizons in taking in a matinee of “Once on This Island” and learn that one of its stars had competed in the monologue competition just a year or two before or stepping onto a Broadway stage for the competition.

There was clearly no trouble getting the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to pay tribute, but having the young men and women Stern and Villena profile so easily seize the spotlight when given the chance to share a bit of their lives seems like testament enough to what Wilson set out to accomplish. You’re liable to have pangs of envy when every finalist receives a collection of all of Wilson’s 10 plays and “Giving Voice” makes one eager to dive into his work (Netflix knows what they’re doing by releasing the Sundance-winning doc next to the adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), but for its subjects and its audience alike, it feels like his influence is already all around us.

“Giving Voice” is now streaming on Netflix.

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