By KENNETH JONES
Late in his life, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson added a grace note to the ten symphony-like plays that he penned about the 20th-century African-American experience. It was a solo show, How I Learned What I Learned, starring the writer himself.
Alone on the stage of Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003, under the direction of co-conceiver Todd Kreidler, Wilson told stories about the real people and events of his 1960s coming-of-age as a young poet in Pittsburgh's Hill District. In essence, he was revealing the personal building blocks that had helped form the characters, tensions, and histories that play out in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Fences, Jitney, Two Trains Running, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. (These are the plays of The American Cycle, as his main body of work is now known.)
The playwright died in 2005, at age 60, never experiencing the 2006-07 slate of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, which had earlier named him the season's Playwright-in-Residence. But Wilson had foresight about his one-man script: He entrusted its future to collaborator-director Kreidler, and he asked actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson to assume the role of "August Wilson."
"August knew that I was an old soul like he was," says Santiago-Hudson, who has stepped into the poet's shoes for the New York City premiere of How I Learned What I Learned, now extended through Dec. 29 at Signature Theatre's Alice Griffin Jewelbox on West 42nd Street. "Even though we were in young men's bodies, we were old souls. We had similar backgrounds. The lessons we had been taught were taught by the same storytellers, the same people in the black community, though he was from Pittsburgh and I was from Lackawanna, [NY]."
Santiago-Hudson earned the writer's friendship and respect for his performances in Broadway's Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean, to say nothing of the actor's own self-penned solo play Lackawanna Blues.
In fact, Santiago-Hudson's mother was from the Pittsburgh area, so there was a kind of shorthand and common ground between the men. He spent 18 summers visiting the setting of most of Wilson's plays, the African-American Hill District. He had breathed the air of the Crawford Grill and other landmarks of the Steeltown milieu.
The actor notes that the New York run of How I Learned What I Learned was originally to be billed as "featuring Ruben Santiago-Hudson," but that was later amended to "in collaboration with and featuring…"
He observes, "It would be remiss to not utilize the other things I've gained a tremendous amount of ground in, as a writer and a director." For his direction of the acclaimed 2012-13 Signature staging of The Piano Lesson---one of his many assignments in resident theatres---Santiago-Hudson won the Lucille Lortel Award, OBIE Award, and Joe A. Callaway Award (from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation). He also directed Signature's Seven Guitars revival in 2006.
"August's script changed nightly," Santiago-Hudson says of the 2003 Seattle run of How I Learned What I Learned. "We had a lot to draw from, and we took what we thought we needed to make this particular production."
Santiago-Hudson jumps into the performance with boundless energy and variety. "I build a lot of characters, I don't just build him," he explains. "I build the people who surrounded him: I do Chawley Williams, Cy Morocco, Snookie, his mama, and more."
He continues, "I approach it with the tools that God gave me. I dig into it. When the director Todd Kreidler first saw it, he said, 'Man, August would never do that. I didn't know that could be done! I never heard that kind of voice.' All of the sudden, he quit hearing August and just started hearing me."
August would play August, the actor explains. "That wouldn't make it any less fascinating because it was August telling the stories," he says. "But I just naturally went to the characters. I do the village. If you release it to me, let me have it and let me be the conductor, then I'll play the symphony."
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Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere
Photo by Joan Marcus