EXCLUSIVE: Making Black Life Matter on Broadway

The sounds of bass and horns begin to fill the spaces of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson perks up. "You can hear that '70s funk now!"

He and actor André Holland have been on a busy schedule promoting the current Broadway production of August Wilson's Jitney, which officially opened Jan. 19, and it's now a couple of hours before tonight's performance will begin. But that sound check of the original blues score by composer Bill Sims Jr. sends a jolt of energy through the air.

"We have the most diverse audience on Broadway right now," says Santiago-Hudson with infectious enthusiasm. "It's not just a black audience, it's a wonderful, diverse New York City audience. That's a bold, American statement: We the people, we're saying it's time!"

MORE: 2017 Spring Theater Preview

It's a few days after Donald Trump has been sworn into office as president of the United States, which was followed by protests and the massive Women's March in Washington, D.C., and other cities. Rather than being worn down by all that is going on in the world, however, the two appear optimistic. That could also possibly owe to the fact that, this same morning, it was announced that Fences, the film adaptation of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, had been nominated for four Academy Awards. Moonlight, which features Holland in its heart-wrenching final act, was also nominated for eight awards, including Best Picture, along with Hidden Figures, which is up for three. The film, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, tells the story of three black women who were involved in helping Americans get to space.

"It's significant because people recognize this extraordinary quality, and it allows the integrity of August Wilson's star to shine so bright right now," Santiago-Hudson says, referring to Fences' nominations. "This play is having a really positive response, and with the movie getting these nominations, and to see Moonlight and Hidden Figures, it gives me a lot of hope. I'm never comfortable, but I'm extremely hopeful."

Holland nods in agreement, adding: "There's been a lot of people working very hard for a very long time, and myself and a lot of other people are standing on those people's shoulders. I am grateful the work is being recognized, honored -- including the people who have been part of August Wilson's legacy and the actors, directors and filmmakers whose work has slipped by in years past."

Santiago-Hudson has directed a number of acclaimed productions of Wilson's work, and his pride in this production of Jitney is well deserved. Although it's the first play Wilson wrote in his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, which portrays 10 decades of 20th-century history, it's the only one that hasn't been seen on a Broadway stage. This Manhattan Theatre Club production -- with a stunningly realistic set by David Gallo and snazzy period costumes by Toni-Leslie James -- places it in the pantheon of Wilson's celebrated works, such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Gem of the Ocean. And Jitney comes at a time when it feels the country needs a vital voice such as Wilson's, who died in 2005, more than ever.

Set in a gypsy cab station in an African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1977, the play is an ensemble piece that focuses on the stories of eight men who are all striving to find a place in a world in which they've been marginalized. At its center is the hard-working Becker (John Douglas Thompson), who runs the jitney service and maintains the peace among the generations of men. Tensions flare when his son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden) returns after serving 20 years in prison for a racially tinged murder.

"He wrote vital plays," Santiago-Hudson says. "Plays that had pulses. They reflected each generation and each time specifically in importance and nature of issues of that era. But things change only so much, the disguise just becomes different. August has a lot of revolution in his plays; it's not just survival, there's a lot of revolution."

MORE: 'Fences' Producer Says Posthumous Oscar Nom for August Wilson Is a Huge Win on Every Level

Holland plays Youngblood, a young Vietnam veteran who desperately wants to figure out a way to get himself and his partner Rena (Carra Patterson) into a home of their own. Despite the fact that there's a single female character in the play, Holland says he thinks the impact of women is of particular importance to these men and their stories.

"You see all of the men of the play are talking about women in some way," says Holland, who was also in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. "Women in the play have an enormous amount to do with the way these men are living their lives. That's one of the things that's really beautiful. A couple of days ago, we saw [at the Women's March] how women get out in front and sort of clean up the messes that we men have made. I feel like that idea is really trafficking through this play."

The cast -- which includes several renowned veterans of Wilson's storytelling style -- devour the meaty poetry in the play, each delivering moving monologues that allow audiences to relate with them, transcending racial and class boundaries, as well as the time period. "The same obstacles that were in black life in 1906, they are still the same obstacles," Santiago-Hudson explains. "We still want the same things any human being would want: a good house, a good education, family.… I know people in 2017 still trying to get a house. And if they do get one, they get beat by the banks."

"It's about resistance," says Holland, picking up the thread. "I was listening to a talk the other day by director Haile Gerima, and he talks about black people being at their most beautiful and most powerful when they're in a state of resistance. That's very much what this play is about…. There is so much you want to say as a black man, and August gives you the words, gives you license to say it. To get to do a play when you get to express [yourself] in that way, it's everything."

Last season, Broadway boasted about its increased opportunities for actors of color, with everything from Hamilton's multiethnic casting to all-black productions such as The Color Purple attracting record audiences. But as Santiago-Hudson notes, it's rare for dramas on the Great White Way to deal with contemporary African-American issues or stories (last year's Eclipsed by Danai Gurira, which starred Lupita N'yongo, was about Liberian women), so this is spring theater season is a rarity because two shows by black playwrights -- Wilson is joined by Lynn Nottage's critically acclaimed drama Sweat -- will be produced simultaneously on Broadway stages. Plus, Jitney is doing it without Hollywood star power.

MORE: 'Moonlight' Star André Holland Is Focused on the Craft, Not the Hype

"It's very significant for us that, for Jitney, we did it and we don't have Denzel, and we don't have [Laurence] Fishburne or Morgan Freeman; we don't have James Earl Jones," says Santiago-Hudson. "We have a company of actors to support the real star, August Wilson, so we are making a bold statement."

As he points out, it may seem like we are in a "Wilson moment," with the play and movie receiving simultaneous attention, but the attention being paid should hopefully only keep up the momentum. In fact, Washington has optioned the entire 10-play cycle and has a nine-picture deal with HBO to bring the stories to a wider audience, and both men hope to be involved as much as possible.

"For Denzel to take on this task, it's a championship bout, and he's the champion. But we have to make sure that we, in his championship bout, align with me and the other people doing this theater thing," Santiago-Hudson says. "Denzel and I have agreed; we've sat down in his house and talked about it: We cannot bastardize the language. We cannot not give August his due. He's the winner; he's the angel and should be given the honor. August is in a good place with Denzel on one end, and hopefully I'm holding up my end."


More Stories