“I turned director simply because he told me I needed to be directing his stuff,” recalls Santiago-Hudson. “That’s why, when I closed in Gem of the Ocean, I went and directed a version of it for the McCarter.” To date, he has directed—or been in—nine of the ten plays Wilson wrote on the black experience in America in the 20th century, winning a Tony for Seven Guitars.
Now he returns to Wilson’s world with the first Broadway production of Jitney, which opens at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre January 19.
“I approached Lynne Meadow about this play 18 months ago,” Santiago-Hudson says a few days before starting rehearsals with his cast. “At that point she couldn’t say yes to it. But when she did call, it was a resounding, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Written in ten days in 1979 and then extensively revised following its Off-Broadway premiere, Jitney takes place in 1977 at a rundown gypsy-cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Mostly, it’s a cluster of taxi drivers sitting around shooting the breeze as they await the return of the owner’s son from prison.
That inevitable father-son collision will be brought to life by the formidable John Douglas Thompson and Brandon Dirden. “I had to get the images of the original actors out of my mind,” Santiago-Hudson says. “Some excellent actors came in fighting, too, but ‘JDT,’ as we call him, brought real authority and power and frailty to the part—and, when I asked him to read with Brandon, it was just magical.”
For Santiago-Hudson, Jitney is more than a labor of love or a debt repaid. “I know these Jitney people intimately,” he says. “I know the textures of the clothes they wore. I know the smell that came from their lips after they put down a bottle of ginger-flavored brandy. I know these guys. So to hear and feel and spend time with them is just a glorious thrill for me. That’s what I love about the play—the familiarity, the warmth, the comfort these people bring me. You know exactly where you are.”