Three Chicago Teens shine in the new documentary film, Giving Voice, streaming now on Netflix. Executive produced by Constanza Romero Wilson, Costume Designer and Widow of August Wilson, Academy Award Winner Viola Davis, and EGOT John Legend, Giving Voice follows six students’ emotional journey as they advance through the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Held annually, the competition celebrates the work of August Wilson, one of America’s preeminent playwrights. Thousands of students compete in twelve cities across the country for a spot to perform on Broadway. Each student chooses a monologue from one of August Wilson’s canon of ten plays that portray the African American Experience. Three students from Chicago, Freedom Martin, Nia Sarfo, and Cody Merridith, are featured in Giving Voice.
What really profoundly touches me is the fact that these kids have attached themselves. August has given Voice to them for their deep emotions, passions, anger, joy, and sense of humor. The characters they recognize as parts of themselves. In doing that, it gives them agency to shout it out and celebrate it. It’s about celebrating themselves. That’s the power of the arts. -Executive Producer, Constanza Romero-Wilson
The August Wilson Monologue competition began two years after Wilson’s passing in 2007. The competition was founded by longtime Wilson collaborators, Kenny Leon and Todd Kreidler. Giving Voice pulls you into the lives of these teens as they study, prepare, and stress over their upcoming monologue performances. Each student carries a unique story and struggle that prepares them for this moment, and audiences are drawn into their lives in a very personal way.
Freedom Martin is a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts. He moved to Chicago from Oklahoma to study acting and drama. This is his second time participating in the Monologue completion. His passion for his craft is evident as you watch him in his bedroom, surrounded by playbooks, posters, and inspirational quotes on creativity and artistry.
Nia Sarfo is an aspiring actress that credits drama with helping her come out of her introverted shell. She is fierce and passionate and chooses to read Molly Cunningham’s character from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. She’s drawn to the strength of the black woman whose words she’s speaking. Fierce, independent, and strong, Nia finds parallels to her character in her own life and transforms on the stage.
Cody Merridith is a student at Perspectives academy. An unlikely competitor, he enters the competition at the suggestion of his English teacher. His school does not have a drama club or theatre program. The underdog, he enters without the benefit of coaching like his fellow competitors. In his initial audition, the judges are blown away that he is performing a monologue he had five weeks to prepare for. He chooses a monologue from Wilson’s powerful play, King Hedley II. Cody Meredith’s story is powerful as we learn he is from the projects, living in Englewood, and like so many, his family has suffered loss because of gun violence. An honor student, he prides himself on giving his best no matter what obstacles he faces.
In a conversation with the Chicago Defender Cody says, he loves being on stage and being seen but initially was scared in the competition. He was intimidated, but the competition fed something in him that made him feel like he could do this. “I got here with the tools I have, so I’m going to do this thing”! Cody chose the monologue from King Headley because he was drawn to the story of an African American male who was trying to find his place in the world. Since the competition, Cody says his eyes are open, and he’s enjoying the journey.
“A lot of African American men feel lost. You know, they are just surviving. The monologue taught me that we all have a purpose no matter what we are going through or struggling with. No matter how wrong you may have been, we are trying to find how right we can be. We are all trying to find our place in the world.”-Cody Merridith
Giving Voices also showcases fellow competitors Aaron Guy (Atlanta), Callie Holley (Texas), and Gerardo Navarro (Los Angeles). Gerardo is a student in South Central Los Angeles. He is Latino but connected with August Wilson’s work. “It says a lot about his work. It’s for everyone, and it speaks for those who are not seen.” He says his experience was life-changing. Like Cody, Gerardo also chose a monologue from the Wilson play, King Headley II.
“That monologue really spoke to me. It talks about such strong and important topics. There was something that pulled me towards, and I couldn’t explain it.”-Gerardo Navarro
Some students’ journey ends after the local competitions, and others continue to Broadway, but Giving Voice is so much more than a competition. It is a beautiful look inside young minds being transformed by the work of an icon. Watching these teens use their life experience, their observant eyes watching the world around them, and pouring all those things into their words as they take the stage will bring tears to your eyes. Viola Davis wants audiences to see how powerful August Wilson’s words are and the “transformative effect” they have on the young people in this film.
“Art has the ability to heal, to search deep in your soul and tap into a strength, a power that you don’t even know you had. It is absolutely the power of August Wilson and these young kids, who are being thrust in the world, not knowing who they are, everyone telling them who they should be. They’re not even being given permission. This monologue competition gives them permission.”-Viola Davis
Giving Voice delves into the historical significance of the work of August Wilson. His ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, are known for their words, monologues, and cultural colloquialisms. August Wilson’s plays frequently dealt with issues of race, mass incarceration, abuse, and injustice. Many of these themes are still relevant today.
“For young people to be introduced to it through the competition, that’s the most important thing. Exposing them to something they haven’t seen before. They are good stories, great plays, and young and old alike love them when they see them, and they feel familiar. Especially to African Americans-Denzel Washington
The students in Giving Voice are now in colleges and universities studying theatre, drama, music, and more. There were no losers in this film because each participant walks away with a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
” because of his stories, I have a better idea of who I am as a person. I have a better idea of the ancestry I hold. August (Wilson) gave me a chance to put myself out there for the very first time and showed me you’re worth seeing. You’re worth seeing”. -Calle Holley, Competitor
Giving Voice is currently streaming on Netflix.
Danielle Sanders is a writer and journalist living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.