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Wayne State alumnus had a mission to drive "Jitney" to Broadway -- and beyond

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2019

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Ruben Santiago-Hudson has a thing for August Wilson.

The actor, playwright and director — who earned a master's degree at Wayne State University — has directed eight of the late Wilson's plays and produced all 10, three of which Wilson wrote to showcase Santiago-Hudson. He won a Tony Award, in fact, in 1996 for his performance in Wilson's "Seven Guitars."

And following a deathbed promise to Wilson in 2005, Santiago-Hudson brought "Jitney," Wilson's first play and a part of his Pittsburgh Cycle, to Broadway, making Wilson the only playwright to have his entire oeuvre presented on the Great White Way.

"We were very close friends," Santiago-Hudson, 62, says by phone. "That last time I visited him I said, ''Jitney' is the only one of your plays that hasn't gotten to Broadway.' He said, 'Yeah, do that. Finish the 10 plays,' and I promised him I'd do everything in my power. Eleven years later we made it — a lot of ups and downs, a lot of uncertainty and head-scratching. ...

"I stayed diligent and persistent, and it happened. And I know he was looking over it the entire time."

Wilson wrote "Jitney," about a teetering gypsy cab company during 1979, and it was first produced three years later by the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in his native Pittsburgh. Wilson re-wrote it during the mid-’90s, and "Jitney" was staged Off-Broadway in 2000. And even though it arrived on Broadway out of sequence with the Pulitzer Prize-winning likes of "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," Santiago-Hudson is confident it still resonates in the same way as Wilson's other works.

"All of his plays distinctively have the same things," he explains. "They're about humanity. They're about the trial. They're about love, conflict. ... It's all the things that make great drama." In "Jitney's" case, he adds, it's parallel love stories "that emerge from this story about people trying to save a part of the community."

"The jitney station is being destroyed and they're trying to save that," explains Santiago-Hudson, who "chased" Wilson for collaborations after seeing "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" during 1984. "The heart and soul of the play is a father and son who are trying to find out how to love each other again, and also about a young man and a young woman trying to find out how to keep their love intact and raise their child in the American dream. It's also about black human beings ... struggling for justice and equality — all those wonderful things.

"If you really put it in a nutshell, it's humanity — great drama, great comedy, incredibly poetic. It's the way black people talk, authentically and with all the humor and pathos and pain and joy that we innately have to have just to navigate this place called America."

Santiago-Hudson's own journey began in Lackawanna, N.Y., where he was born Ruben Santiago Jr. Infatuated with acting and theater arts at a young age, he studied first at Binghamton University, but calls his time at Wayne State pivotal — though not initially positive.

At the time, Santiago-Hudson was one of only two black performers at the school's Hillberry Repertory Theatre, and landed no lead roles during his two years there.

"I didn't feel totally respected and embraced there," he acknowledges. "I had to find a community that would embrace me.

"Santiago-Hudson found that by venturing out into the city, meeting and collaborating with smaller community theater companies as well as actors, musicians and poets — even sitting in at local jazz clubs such as Bert's Warehouse and teaching classes at Wayne Country Community College and the Rosa Parks Cultural Center.

"I just felt so embraced," Santiago-Hudson recalls, "and then my attitude changed about the Hillberry. I didn't need a lead role or a good role to feel like I still belonged there. I softened. I still didn't get any lead roles, but I had another community that told me I mattered, so my edge went away. Detroit fortified me as a young artist, and as a young man."

His experiences in Detroit proved to be a launch pad. In addition to the Wilson work on Broadway he's amassed an accomplished résumé that ranges from films such as "Selma," "Shaft" and "American Gangster" to TV hits "Law & Order," "The West Wing," "The Quad," the Detroit-set "Low Winter Sun" on AMC and the adaptation of his autobiographical play "Lackawanna Blues" for HBO. He received an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Theatre award in 2009 for "Their Eyes Were Watching God" as well as a Drama Desk award for "The Piano Lessons" and Lucille Lortel honors.

Santiago-Hudson — who also received an honorary doctorate from Wayne State — has also paid his Detroit love forward. With Vaughn Washington he co-founded the Afro American Studio Theatre, and he was an early supporter of Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau, directing the world premieres of her "Skeleton Crew" and "Paradise Blue."

"Detroit is like a second home to me," says Santiago-Hudson, whose future projects include in new Broadway play next September as well as the return of "Lackawanna Blues" and a continuing university lecture series. "I went to the ('Jitney') producer personally and said I want to bring this play to Detroit. The Music Hall is bigger than the other places we're playing, but I said that if my people know I'm coming they'll come out, cheering me on, and my producers went along with me.

"I just wanted to offer this to Detroit. It's a great play, and it will speak to the city."

August Wilson's Jitney runs Tuesday, Nov. 12, through Nov. 16 at Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $59 and $69. Call 313-887-8500 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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