The actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson spent 11 years pushing, prodding and cajoling theater owners to let him bring Jitney to Broadway. It was the first in what would become August Wilson’s magnificent, 10-play cycle – one for each decade – about the lives of African-Americans, mostly in a black enclave of Pittsburgh. And until this just-ended season, Jitney was the only work in the 10 that had not been produced on Broadway, despite the fact that, by the time he died in 2005, the plays had won two Pulitzer Prizes, six New York Drama Critics Circle awards, the Olivier and Tony awards and countless accolades for the actors and other contributors to the lives of those miraculous works.
Santiago-Hudson was among the beneficiaries of Wilson’s genius for creating indelible characters and irresistible plots that typically trod a lyrical path between realism and, let’s call it meta-realism, in which present lives are suffused with and often directed by voices, spirits and stories from the past. Wilson created two roles specifically for Santiago-Hudson, and encouraged him to move ahead as a director. Santiago-Hudson’s friend and mentor, writer-director George C. Wolfe, had encouraged him to set down the stories from his own coming of age that form the basis of Lackawanna Blues, which became a play and in 2005 provided Wolfe with his filmmaking debut on HBO.
Jitney, which is set in the 1970s in the office of a car service that is about to be displaced by an urban renewal project, is now up for the Tony Award for outstanding revival, and Santiago-Hudson is a nominee for his staging of the play at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home base, the Samuel Friedman Theatre. In a rare act of recognition, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted to give the director and the entire cast a special ensemble award to acknowledge the seamless integrity of the production.
Wolfe was not surprised by any of this, seeing it as of a piece with Santiago-Hudson’s life onstage and in front of it. “Ruben loves being an actor,” Wolfe told me. “From the first time I met him, I knew that he takes extraordinary pride in the craft of it. Two of the most brilliant story tellers I’ve ever worked with are Elaine Stritch and Ruben, they are the best. So when he started to direct, you saw the passion and the story telling. And his love for August Wilson is unconditional.”
I spoke with Santiago-Hudson recently in New York.
Deadline: What moved you to bring Jitney to Broadway? It already had been seen in a fine off-Broadway production.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: I wanted August to have this distinguished honor that no other playwright had ever had. He just wanted me to do How I Learned What I Learned, his one-man play, because he was two weeks away from his demise. He called and said, “I want you to do my play because I don’t want it to go away, I was going to do a lot with it and you can do it.” I told him I’m a little afraid of that play because it’s not my play, it’s your play, what about Jitney? I want to do that on Broadway and he said, “Do that! Do that! That’s great, you got a lot of work to do.”
Deadline: It took 11 years, but finally the Manhattan Theatre Club gave you the go-ahead. How was your relationship with them?
Santiago-Hudson: I have a vision of this play. I believe in it. If you trust it, trust me. Do you believe in me? And [artistic director] Lynne Meadow looked at me one day and said, “Yes. I might not understand what you’re getting ready to do, I might not know what this hand coming out of this thing is, I don’t know what all this music is in the beginning, but I trust you.”
‘August and I often talked about Africa and the Africa in all of us. I could go on for hours about how we reinvent and expose the Africa in us. Because all that was taken, and we find all these little things as African-American people, to reveal it again.’
Deadline: Was she worried?
Santiago-Hudson: She said the critics are going to kill you on something they don’t understand. I said Lynne, I go to see Chekhov, Shakespeare, Japanese theater, Chinese theater and I don’t always understand a lot, but I do understand the story. So instead of wanting me to explain to you who I am as an African-American man, as a Puerto Rican man, let me let you experience me, and my truth, and see does that make us both better? And she was like, “Come on, truth! What does that mean?” I said that’s the community.
Deadline: Can you explain that?
Santiago-Hudson: August and I often talked about Africa and the Africa in all of us. And I could go on for hours about how we reinvent and expose the Africa in us. Because all that was taken, and we find all these little things as African-American people, to reveal it again. You can be driving through Cincinnati and see a brother on the corner in a lime-green suit and yellow snake-skin shoes and a yellow straw hat, and those same colors are in kinte cloth. Nobody else can wear that lime green suit – unless you’re going to be performing at Madison Square Garden with the Stones or Southside Johnny or something. But to see a brother actually living his life wearing it – all those colors are in the cloths we wore and we don’t even know it’s coming out of our DNA.
Deadline: It’s in the blood.
Santiago-Hudson: You know people still worship and dance in Africa in their religious ceremonies the same way they dance in South Carolina in an AME Zion church. Same dances! We celebrate through our DNA in the same ways. It’s just there, it’s custom. In August’s plays, I always find something very African. In my directing, I always want it discovered, not imposed.
Deadline: Tell me about your relationship with him.
Santiago-Hudson: It began when I walked into the Cort Theatre in 1980 to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and I sat there in awe. My cheek started itching, I started scratching and I realized it was wet, I was crying. I didn’t know why until later, when I realized that for the first time in my life, I actually looked on a stage and saw people I knew intimately. I hitched my wagon to his. And his wagon left the station and mine didn’t. I worked my way up.
Deadline: You were just starting out.
Santiago-Hudson: Yes. We became very close. August is similar to me, he’s a person who celebrates through his language and conversation from a cup of coffee to a cigarette who we are and where he came up.
Deadline: After establishing yourself as an actor to watch, he finally hired you.
Santiago-Hudson: In 1992, when they did Two Trains Running, they invited me in to audition and that’s when I met him face-to-face, he and Lloyd [Richards, Wilson’s great advocate and director]. I wanted so bad to impress them, and I think I did – but they chose a young man named Laurence Fishburne and he won the Tony. Pretty good move on their behalf. Later on, they invited me into the room in Seven Guitars – and I won the Tony.