Ruben Santiago-Hudson: Keeping a giant alive

November 26, 2013

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If there was a Mount Rushmore for the faces of America’s greatest playwrights, Ruben Santiago-Hudson says, August Wilson’s face would be among them.

“And he wouldn’t be No. 4, either,” Santiago-Hudson adds firmly.

The Tony Award-winning actor and Obie and Lucille Lortel Award-winning director of Wilson’s work, Santiago-Hudson is playing the late playwright in “How I Learned What I Learned,” a one-man show Wilson mounted in Seattle for a brief run in 2002. Before Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005, at the age of 60, he made Santiago-Hudson promise to mount the show himself after Wilson died.

“But we all had to come to grips and put his death into perspective first,” Santiago-Hudson, 56, says, sitting at a table in the cafe of the Signature Theater Center in Manhattan, where his show runs through Dec. 29. “None of us wanted to do it without him – and we had to come to grips with the idea that we could, in order to honor his wishes.”

Rather than a biographical self-portrait, “How I Learned What I Learned” focuses instead on the people who helped make Wilson the person he was – and the writer he was. It deals with his education into the issue of race in this country, and the way it affects different generations, black and white. It also traces his self-discovery as a writer – as an artist, in a country that doesn’t specifically value them.

“The biggest challenge was that I didn’t want to do an impersonation,” says Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award for Wilson’s 1995 Broadway premiere of “Seven Guitars.” “People know me, they’re familiar with me already. Eventually he takes the reins and carries the show. It’s his story. He has a right to it; he’s going to come out.”

To Santiago-Hudson’s thinking, this particular piece of drama is not a play or even a kind of entertainment: It’s story-telling with a point – and while parts of it are highly entertaining, thanks to Santiago-Hudson’s ability to slide effortlessly in and out of wonderfully drawn characters, that’s not the point of the evening.

“I’m not there to entertain – I’m there to tell a story,” he says. “I want to find a way to tell it that’s passionate and interesting. I’m not just there to do a song and dance; it’s not a minstrel show. It’s entertainment in the form of storytelling.”

Santiago-Hudson had been hearing about Wilson – and director Lloyd Richards, who discovered him at the O’Neill Theater Center – ever since they’d set the O’Neill on fire with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1982. When Santiago-Hudson arrived in New York to try to find work in 1983, he began to dog Wilson’s steps, hoping to work with this new giant of the theater.

“I wanted to be a part of what he was doing, August and Lloyd – I wanted to be part of that train,” says Santiago-Hudson, who directed an award-winning production of Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” earlier this year. “I was persistent. By the time I got into my first audition with them – for ‘Two Trains Running’ – I had made a name for myself.”

To Santiago-Hudson, Wilson was “a philosopher, a professor, a brother, a mentor. He seemed to have an incredible sense of what you needed. And he would provide it, without seeming to make a whole lot of effort. You’d leave him and you’d feel healed somehow.”

Having fulfilled this promise to Wilson, Santiago-Hudson has one more goal to carry out. He’s recently completed radio recordings of all 10 of the Wilson’s American Century – his life work, a set of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century and dealing with the black experience through that 100-year span. They’ll be broadcast on and available through National Public Radio.

He’d like to direct more of Wilson’s plays, and play some of the Wilson’s tragic heroes that are becoming as iconic as Willie Loman and Stanley Kowalski: Troy Maxson in “Fences,” King in “King Hedley II.”

Now he wants to get a production of “Jitney,” Wilson’s play about the 1970s, to play on Broadway. It’s only ever had off-Broadway productions and is the only one of Wilson’s plays not have at least one Broadway foray.

“That would be my final homage,” Santiago-Hudson says, adding, “The fact that it hasn’t been done yet is just crazy.”

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