“You look up one day and all you got left is what you ain’t spent. Everyday cost you something and you don’t all the time realize it.”
On the eve of losing the jitney cab station he’s run for the last 20 years, Becker reflects on how he became a man up in years with nothing to show other than the hours he’s worked. This is a running theme in August Wilson’s play Jitney, and in all of his works: measuring the cost that working-class Black folks pay just to be alive. The poetic language and authenticity of Wilson’s characters have drawn actor/director/playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson to Wilson’s work over the last three decades.
Santiago-Hudson won a Tony for directing the belated Broadway premiere of Jitney in 2017, in a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club. Now he’s returning to the play, launching it on a national tour from Arena Stage, where it runs Sept. 13-Oct. 20 before heading out to the Music Hall in Detroit, Center Theatre Group in L.A., the Old Globe in San Diego, and finally Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Though originally written in 1979, Jitney was extensively overhauled for its official premiere in 1996, taking its place as the official eighth play in Wilson’s 10-play American Century cycle, one for each decade of the 20th century. In a Pittsburgh jitney station in 1977, eight men navigate love and other temptations while their neighborhood begins to slip away to gentrification. With much of the same creative team and five of the eight actors who performed it on Broadway, Santiago-Hudson is eager to see how a shifting cultural climate will affect audience response to the play.
I caught up with Santiago-Hudson on the first day of rehearsals at Arena Stage and he shared why Wilson is his favorite playwright, and why he believes now is the right time to revisit Jitney.
KELUNDRA SMITH: What’s the most memorable thing that you learned from August Wilson?
RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: As a writer, I learned to not be afraid to let my characters talk. We’re always editing our writing for other audiences, afraid that we won’t be able to hold people’s attention, or that they’re talking too much. August said, “Don’t be afraid to let your characters talk.” That was very important to me.
Right now, we’re having a surge of productions by Black playwrights, and many of their plays deal with similar themes as Wilson. How does Jitney still resonate today?
In his plays, we get to see and feel the spirit and electricity of people in this community navigating this landscape called America. It’s a beautiful thing to watch us—and by us I mean Black folk—work it out, because we don’t get to see that on TV, film, and rarely onstage. Everything contained in life is contained in his plays, and in Black culture.
When people think of an August Wilson play, they typically have a certain kind of show in mind. Now that all of his plays have been done, do you feel empowered to take a different interpretation?
Many audiences haven’t seen August Wilson’s plays done well, so my mission is to go out and do the plays well the way the author intended. The celebration of African American life and the way we navigate this landscape… We have a whole different set of problems that we face, and the way we have to face them is different than any other race or village. We get pulled over for driving Black. White people don’t get pulled over for driving Black. We have to tell our sons to put your hands up when the police stop you. White people don’t have to tell their sons that.
You’ve also won awards for directing and performing in The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars. And you recently wrote the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Netflix. How do you see Jitney and Ma Rainey rubbing up against each other, if at all?
What is similar is showing the wholeness of being Black, even if you have to show it onstage in quiet, private ways. In Ma Rainey, when they’re in the rehearsal room, their wholeness comes out. When they’re in front of the white guys they have to navigate that landscape we’re talking about. Then, when they go down in the basement, their true Blackness comes out. The way they joke with each other, the anger, the pathos. We rarely get to see that. Where do white people witness that? Where do we get to see that? We have to seek it out.
What’s the most pressing issue you believe that Black people are facing right now?
We’re fighting so many fights, but I think what’s most important is that we find our identity. It’s been hidden from us, kept from us, battered out of us. The fear in this country by the people who are running things is that we discover our magnitude, our beauty, our intellect, our history. The fight we have to fight the most is educating our people.
One of the modern critiques of Wilson’s work is that the roles for women are limited and disempowering. What do you say to that?
It’s a terrible misconception. In every August Wilson play, the woman is the center. The woman is the moral fiber of the play. Somewhere in every August Wilson play, the woman turns the play on its heels. So for people to make that criticism is unwarranted and untrue. Do they have the most words? No. August was a little shy about writing too much for women because he questioned whether he was the best person to write for women. When you think about it, he was one of the best writers for women, because is there a stronger female character than Aunt Esther? Find her, show her to me.
What would you like audiences to take away from the experience of seeing Jitney?
I would like for audiences come in and see this play and not only be entertained but enlightened. I want them to feel the jolt, vibrancy, and electricity of African American life. How we fight our fights and how we win. How we stand our own ground, and we’re not talking Florida stand your ground, we’re talking about integrity as human beings, as people. I want people to experience the dignity of the community.