August Wilson's American Century Cycle Comes to Life With Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Leslie Uggams and Stephen McKinley Henderson

By Stuart Miller
13 Sep 2013

Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Ruben Santiago-Hudson chats with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Anthony Chisholm, Leslie Uggams, Ebony Jo-Ann and Roslyn Ruff about working with legendary playwright August Wilson.

Pittsburgh is making itself at home at the Greene Space in lower Manhattan this month as New York Public Radio undertakes the ambitious task of recording readings of all ten of August Wilson's American Century Cycle plays, which largely revolve around Pittsburgh's Hill District. 

The project has attracted a star-studded cast, including Phylicia Rashad, John Douglas Thompson, Clarke Peters, S. Epatha Merkerson, Keith David and Regina Taylor.

To honor Wilson and the project, Playbill sat down with six actors whose lives and careers intertwined with the great playwright. The roundtable was supposed to last for one hour but once the stories began flowing, the freewheeling conversation went on for more than 90 minutes. Below is an edited and condensed version.

The cast:

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, artistic director of the project, is perhaps the foremost interpreter of Wilson's work. He has acted in or directed most of these plays, winning a Tony Award as Canewell in Seven Guitars and an Obie and Lucille Lortel Award for directing The Piano Lesson

Stephen McKinley Henderson has acted in Fences, King Hedley IIMa Rainey's Black Bottom and Jitney, earning a Drama Desk and an Obie Award for Jitney. He is associate artistic director.

Anthony Chisholm received a Tony nomination for his role in Radio Golf, won a Drama Desk and Obie as part of Jitney and appeared on Broadway in Gem of the Ocean and Two Trains Running.

Leslie Uggams earned a Tony nomiation for Best Actress in King Hedley II.

Ebony Jo-Ann was the understudy in both the original and revival productions of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as well as for Gem of the Ocean.

Roslyn Ruff won an Obie Award in the revival of Seven Guitars, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. She was also an understudy in the Broadway revival of Fences and was again directed by Santiago-Hudson in 2013's Off-Broadway production of The Piano Lesson.

Seeing August Wilson's Work

Ruben: You will never forget the first time you saw an August Wilson play. I saw Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. I actually saw half of it. I had no money to see all of it. I was sleeping on the floor of an apartment and had just come to New York City and they said, 'The black folks was doing a play.'

When I walked in there at intermission, when I slithered in there, I saw these people that I knew, then I heard them say things that I'd heard and I saw the way they walked and stood and wore their clothes. And I thought, 'I'm at home.' I came up in a rooming house and all of these guys lived there and the stories August's characters told were the stories I knew. I just knew I had to be a part of it in some way. When you hear it, you know you're alive.

Ebony: I lived in a house with these people. This is the way they talked. August's mom was a cleaning woman and my mother was as well. She walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania.

Roslyn: When I see the plays, I'm reminded of my family in those conversations that I heard, and I'm amazed somebody has put them on stage in such an eloquent manner. My brother-in-law runs the Hill District credit union. I always say that if August was still alive and writing, that he would be a character, and that's all I'm saying.

Stephen: I was doing A Raisin in the Sun with Esther Rolle, and Delroy Lindo told us about the incredible play he was doing, Joe Turner. I had heard about August but hadn't seen his plays. Esther had an extra ticket and invited me. When I got to see and hear the language in that play, to hear the poetry and all that wisdom — it was wisdom and voices that I had heard growing up but it was what he had done with those voices, how he crafted them. August gave a gift to the whole world because he made it a message for everybody.

Leslie: I was doing Into the Woods in Pittsburgh and the director said, 'I just saw an August Wilson play and you've got to see it.' I had seen Ma Rainey, but when my husband and I went to see Jitney with Stephen and Anthony in it, our mouths were open. We were just in awe. We went backstage and had to hug each and every one of the cast. I was so moved.


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