He's acted in August Wilson plays (to Tony-winning effect, in the original Broadway production of Seven Guitars). He's directed August Wilson plays (to Obie-winning effect, with last year's Signature Theatre Company revival of The Piano Lesson). And now, to complete his artistic absorption of the late playwright's work, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has become August Wilson.
Well, not exactly. But the actor-director is the first person to perform Wilson's autobiographical solo show, How I Learned What I Learned, other than Wilson himself. The show, which takes us on a colorful tour of the adventures and people the Pittsburgh native encountered on his way to becoming a celebrated writer, was first performed by Wilson in Seattle in 2003. It's now enjoying its New York premiere at the Signature.
Santiago-Hudson's casting of himself as Wilson, who died in 2005, in not a bit of hubris. He had the blessing of the man himself.
"I was heading to rehearsal and the phone rang," Santiago-Hudson recalled. "August and I usually talked often and asked how things were going. But this particular conversation was how he wanted me to do this play. I was taken aback. I didn't think it was right to me to do it. It was his play."
The two men's friendship sprung up during the 1996 Broadway staging of Seven Guitars. According to Santiago-Hudson, the writer saw a lot of himself in the actor. "We had a lot of connections," he explained. "He's from Pittsburgh. And my birth mother was from Pittsburgh, and for a time I went there every summer. I've learned lessons from the elders in that community and the women there. He did the same. That's how he learned who he was — from people who couldn't read and write, but could tell stories about their life." Santiago-Hudson pledged to Wilson that he would perform in How I Learned... Then he got busy and years passed. Finally a voice rather close to him urged him to the task. "The biggest influence was my wife," he said. "She says, 'You should do this. You're prostrating.' She kept pushing me: 'Make the call. Call Jim.'"
Jim was James Houghton, the longtime artistic director of the Signature, which dedicated a season to Wilson's work in 2006–07 and has not abandoned the playwright's legacy since. For Santiago-Hudson, there was no other man to ask. "That's the artistic director who gets me better than any other, understands my passion," he said.
He makes it clear that, while he is playing Wilson, he is not impersonating him. "I want this to be an experience of a man's life, told by someone who loves him. I put you in the hands of a very familiar person — most of the people in the audience have seen me in the last 15 years. I get you comfortable with me. But August's presence will take precedence eventually."
That said, he added that it's not that great of a leap from Wilson to Santiago-Hudson, in terms of theatrical voice. "It's a certain northern-southern person, a person from the South who migrated to the North," he said. "There's manners, decorum, anger, attitude, joy; the identity and integrity of having a place in society and holding it. It came out of August when you talked to him. And it comes out of me when you talk to me in a bar or whatever. I'm very pleased to be who I am, where I am."