Being August Wilson: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Is Getting Into Character as the Late Playwright

“This was something I thought very necessary to do. People are now producing August because of his place in American theater and figuring out new ways to present him, but what they’re really doing is bastardizing the truth of his work. What I wanted to do was have at least an archive of the work. If you want to do a different version of it, O.K. Just know this is the way it sounded in August’s ear. That’s what I was trying to honor. That’s why I asked actors who worked with him, people I trusted—Phylicia Rashad, Michele Shay, Kenny Leon, Marion McClinton, Stephen McKinley Henderson. It‘ll be available 2014, probably spring.”

After Seven Guitars, there wasn’t a play that Wilson wrote that he didn’t call Mr. Santiago-Hudson about—whether it was to be in it or to just read it. “I said ‘no’ to him as much as I said ‘yes,’” the actor insisted. “He wrote ‘Mister’ for me in King Hedley II. I didn’t do it. He wrote ‘Citizen’ for me in Gem of the Ocean, but I didn’t do it. I did Caesar in Gem. It was written for Charles Brown, who died, and nobody seemed to want to take it on, so I decided to challenge myself. ‘Why don’t I do it?’”

Wilson’s last request—literally (it was the last time they spoke)—was for Mr. Santiago-Hudson to take on How I Learned What I Learned, a piece Wilson had put together for himself to do between the serious business of Writing Plays. Not only did the actor cave to the writer’s powers of persuasion, he promised as a bonus to get Jitney, the only one of Wilson’s 10 plays to not receive a Tony nominations for Best Play, to Broadway.

Jitney played Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater and so wasn’t eligible for Tony consideration, but it was voted Best Play of 2001 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and the Outer Critics Circle and did win an Olivier Award as the Best New Play in London in 2002. Recently, Mr. Santiago-Hudson directed a version of it in New Jersey at the Two Rivers Theater, where they commissioned his own new play, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine. He said he would do a workshop of Your Blues in March, then hopefully a production there next season, then move it on to New York.

Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s next New York play is neither a Wilson nor one of his own but a Quiara Alegria Hudes, the Tony nominee for In the Heights and Pulitzer Prize winner for Water by the Spoonful. In February, at Second Stage, he will helm The Happiest Song Plays Last, the conclusion of her Elliot trilogy. “I get a chance to be a person of Latino roots,” he beamed. “It’s very important to me that I get a chance to celebrate that.”

Then it’s back to pushing Jitney to Tony eligibility. “Once I get Jitney done, I can settle down and focus on new writers I want to work with, as well as continue my lifetime work with August. That’ll be forever. Till I’m gone, I’m going to be doing his stuff.”