Ruben Santiago-Hudson is laughing. He's calling himself a "doting father," referring to the fact that he's directing August Wilson's Seven Guitars, the revival of which is kicking off the Signature Theater Company's season of Wilson plays.

Seven Guitars, a metaphor for the play's seven characters, received eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. Santiago-Hudson won for Best Featured Actor. It also received five Drama Desk nominations, including a Featured Actor nod to Santiago-Hudson. In addition, it was a nominee for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as was Wilson's 1992 Two Trains Running and his 2000 King Hedley II. Mr. Wilson won Pulitzers for Fences (1987), also honored by the Tonys and Drama Desk as Best Play, and The Piano Lesson (1990), honored as Outstanding Play by Drama Desk.

"August Wilson's contribution to the American theater is beyond measure," says Signature artistic director James Houghton. "We're excited to be presenting three of his legendary, twentieth-century cycle plays and honored by the faith his estate has shown. When we worked with August, he was happy for his work to be presented in an intimate setting and at affordable prices, making it accessible to all."

Santiago-Hudson states, "August left so much for us to explore. He was fully in love with African-American people, their laughter, anger, style and perseverance. It's a glorious thing for me to be in a position to honor the integrity of his work, which says: All my people are worthy and their worst qualities are redeemable."

The role of Theo in the Negro Ensemble Company's 1985 revival of Lonnie Elder's Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, put the actor, then 27, on the map. In 1999, four years after making his Broadway acting and singing debut as Buddy Bolden in Jelly's Last Jam opposite Gregory Hines' Jelly Roll Morton, he was chosen by renowned director (the late) Lloyd Richards to portray Canewell in Seven Guitars. It was a much-celebrated performance in a celebrated play.

There's such a deep, spiritual bond between Santiago-Hudson and Wilson that he often speaks as if Wilson were still with us. Santiago- Hudson reveals he's kept the last phone message between them. "Since August isn't here," he says, "it's a way to stay close."

Santiago-Hudson, considering his connection to Seven Guitars and the fact that Wilson (who died in 2005), was a mentor, approached the casting of the revival meticulously. "We auditioned lots and lots of actors in an effort to put together the right family."
That family consists of Lance Reddick (TV's "Oz," "The Wire"] in the pivotal role of blues singer Floyd, Roslyn Ruff as his left behind sometime fiance, Kevin T. Carroll (Take Me Out) as Canewell, Brenda Pressley and Charles Weldon as neighbors Louise and Hedley. Cassandra Freeman as Louise's drop-dead gorgeous neice and Stephen McKinley Henderson (a veteran of numerous Wilson plays on Broadway, Off Broadway and regionally) as Red complete the "guitars."
"The cast," says Santiago-Hudson, "was passionate about August's work and being a part of this production. Happy to say, there's not a false note in the casting. They are amazing."

Seven Guitars is set in the late 40s in Pittsburgh's Hill District, as are several of the playwright's works. The revival, with tickets at the bargain price of $15 (through the lead sponsorship of Time Warner and Target), at the 160-seat Signature Theater at the Peter Norton Space (555 West 42nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues), is sold out. The eight-week run is set to end September 23; however, there's a cancellation line, and efforts are underway to extend or move the revival.

"As soon as I found out that Jim [Houghton] planned saluting August's work," he reports, "I called and asked if he needed somebody to go for coffee, somebody to act, somebody to direct." He's happy Houghton settled on the last option. "To let me be a part of it is the ultimate blessing."

Wilson explored the depths of his characters in monologues. One of the most impressive is in Seven Guitars, when Canewell speaks late in Act Two on the loss of love. It was probably one of the deciding reasons for Santiago-Hudson's Tony win.
"It's a beauty," he says. "It still moves me and audiences. Kevin handles it gorgeously. Watching him recreate this role that's so close to me has been quite an experience. He has the same philosophy I have. I don't go in any play expecting anything other than the absolute joy of creating of a role."
He also has praise for Signature audiences. "They're an educated group. They come to appreciate theater, and they respect actors. There's rapt attention to the words."

Sometimes there's a question you want to ask, but you don't want it taken the wrong way. Having seen so many of Wilson's plays and how he portrays "white folks," one might wonder if there were any that he liked. There must have been, because the producers and regional theater artistic directors who kept his work before the public are white. A white person can come out of some Wilson plays fairly beaten up, asking "What did I do?" So Santiago-Hudson is asked, "Did he ever write anything about white people that was nice -- that's good, that's positive?"

"Yes," he immediately states, "there's the role of Solly Two Kings in Gem of the Ocean, in which I appeared on Broadway. He's literally a part of Aunt Ester's family." (GOTO is also the play on which Santiago- Hudson made his directorial debut in 2005 productions at New Jersey's McCarter and San Francisco's A.C.T.)

Santiago-Hudson, a native of Lackawanna, NY, south of Buffalo, addss, "The folks who don't harbor hatred and don't condone it might feel a bit beaten, because that's not who they are. What August has done in his plays is examine the results of the opposite behavior on blacks."

He points to how Wilson in Seven Guitars has Floyd describe how he got arrested for walking down the street after his mother's funeral. "In Pittsburgh," Santiago-Hudson says with indignation. "In Pennsylvania."
The actor/director recalls that in the rooming house where he was raised and where his autobiographical play and film Lackawanna Blues is set, "everyone had been to jail - some for just spitting on the sidewalk, some for vagrancy. Others for inciting a riot, when they were just hanging out on a corner because they didn't have two dollars in their pocket."

He can't control himself when he relates the story that Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays Red in the Seven Guitars revival, told of his grandfather in St. Louis getting a ticket for screaming at a white mule. "He was told to call the mule Mister," states Santiago-Hudson.

The characters in Wilson plays are said to come from his and the experiences of family and friends, so was he an angry man? "Being quite honest," says Santiago-Hudson, "in my life I know very few black men who aren't angry. Heck, every day somebody gives me a reason to be angry. It's what you do what that anger that's important.
"How can that anger manifest into something positive?" he continues. "I take my anger, as probably did August, and try to make it a positive thing. I try to prevent things that have happened to me from happening to those who are close to me. Let me educate my kids and at-risk teens about the obstacles they're going to face; and how they can overcome those obstacles through hard work and patience."

Santiago-Hudson says that often he's at his happiest when someone makes him angry. "If I took everything that happened to me in a day and got angry about it, I'd probably take a gun and kill a few people. But I try to make those situations a lesson. I've had people tell me, 'I don't like your walk' and 'You have a doctorate, so why do you talk like you do?'
"My reply to that," he furter states, "is I speak the Queen's English when I perform Shakespeare. In my day-to-day existence, I'm uptown at the Lenox Lounge and downtown at Carnegie Hall. I take the middle ground. I don't bring myself off as too white or too black. But I'm both. I'm Latino and black."

One aspect of the Seven Guitars revival that Santiago-Hudson is also proud of is the original blues score by Bill Sims Jr. "Everything in the play says something, whether subconsciously or ethereally. So it was important to link the right music to the story. So there's a variety of blues styles, Early on, there's acoustic when Floyd takes out his guitar and, later, electric guitar."
Then there's that jukebox in the lobby. "Compiling the music on that took me four months, but when I see audience members strutting and dancing to the blues as they exit, it was worth it."

He's also happy to note that there's another connection to Wilson in the revival at Signature. Associate artist Constanza Romera, who designed the costumes, is the playwright's widow.

Santiago-Hudson emphasizes that he's approached the play with great integrity, that not a word has been cut -- which leads one to another burning question: "Has August Wilson ever written a short play?"
Santiago-Hudson responds, "I've been in longer ones." Probably by August Wilson. "Nope. It was by a guy named Chekhov and a fella named Shakespeare. And I've done plays that have had two intermissions."
He adds, "Seven Guitars is a two-and-a- half hour play with intermission. That's not long when what you're seeing is classic theater."

Signature continues the August Wilson Series with revivals of Two Trains Running, beginning November 7, 2006; and, in February 2007, with King Hedley II.



Key Subjects: 
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson, Seven Guitars, Signature Theater Company
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
August 2006