Inspiring People

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tony Award winning actor, director, writer, and producer

Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a gifted and accomplished actor who is also a force of nature. He moves easily among the worlds of theatre, film, and television and has amassed important credits in all of these fields.

Ruben received the 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Performer in August Wilson's acclaimed Seven Guitars. He made his Broadway debut as Buddy Bolden opposite Gregory Hines in Jellys Last Jam. His feature credits include Bleeding Hearts directed by Gregory Hines, Blown Away with Jeff Bridges, Paramounts Coming to America, TNTs Which Way Home with Cybil Shepard, and Showtimes unique production, Solomon and Sheba, with Halle Berry and Jimmy Smits.

Ruben has many television and films roles to his credits including his role as Captain Billy Cooper on the daytime drama Another World for which he is widely recognized.

Ruben was born in Lackawanna, New York. His father was Puerto Rican and his mother black, but the landlady, whom he refers to as Nanny, raised Ruben with the assistance of his godparents. He received a B.A. in Theatre from S.U.N.Y. Binghamton, and an MFA from Wayne State University. He has lectured on theatre at colleges and universities and served as a private acting coach, but it was Ruben's experience of managing his own theatre company in Detroit that brought him to New York. Theatre performances have led him to stages across the United States and Europe. Off-Broadway he has often appeared in The Negro Ensemble Company Productions including Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and A Soldiers Play.

Santiago-Hudson lives in New York with his wife Jeannie, and their twins, Lily and Trey. He also has two older sons. Ruben has a great appreciation of music and can play a mean harmonica. In his spare time, Ruben devotes himself to the causes of underprivileged children.

Ruben Santiago Hudson is not only an incredibly talented actor, he is also passionate about "his people" and powerfully committed to making a difference. His work and his conversation are a reflection of who he is.

I find Ruben to be refreshingly bold, honest and fearless. He is a breath of fresh air in a climate that can sometimes feel stagnate with the air of compromise.

DR: Tell me about your work.

RSH: I am an actor, producer, writer and a director. I am an artist, basically. What I do is, what my mission and my goal is -

to entertain and to educate at the same time, to enlighten people.

In a sense to attack the distorted images that have been created about my people. When I say my people I mean people with African blood in their veins and people with Puerto Rican blood in their veins who have been maligned through the arts, through television and movies and in a lot of ways - the media. I don't think all media is bad but from what I am seeing, what they are projecting of us has not been accurate and I want to try and see if I can make a little difference in the time that I have here.

DR: And how would you say that you have been able to do that so far?

RSH: By my integrity and the work that I do. By the projects that I choose to do. The August Wilson work that I choose to do, the Zora Neale Hurston movie that I choose to do, the Lackawanna Blues that I choose to do to tell about my community and the integrity and the dignity and the strength of my people; the strength and the intellect and love of my people.

That's what I do.

DR: When you say "the dignity of my people", can you just share with me a little bit more about what that means to you personally.

RSH: People that take pride in the good that is inside of the them, the fairness that's inside of them, the intellect that they have --

the strength!

The dignity of my people is what they stand for and who they are. That "I do love my family" that "I am out here doing everything and sacrificing everything that I can so that my family has the necessities to be viable members of the community and to be accessories -- somebody that makes the world a better place."

Our fathers and mothers go out and do that everyday and put up with a lot of stuff so that we can be productive people. That's dignity. They don't compromise in what they believe is right and they teach those values to their children.

DR: I have seen your work, most recently Lackawanna Blues, which is the story of your life. Congratulations on that and on all of the awards that you have earned. It was very moving. But what would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far?

RSH: I think it's trying to be a good father. Trying to be a righteous father; somebody who teaches and provides, protects and also leads by example. What it means to be a good person and, as a father -

being a father, you have that responsibility by the way that you conduct yourself. I think that's my biggest accomplishment. In my maturity, being an older father now, I have come to be at peace in who I am and where I fit in the world and I try to lead by example with my children --things that I don't want them to do, I don't do.

DR: Like what, for example?

RSH: I don't overdo anything. I don't over drink. I don't over eat. I don't over sleep. I'm fair. If I see wrong - I get in the middle of it. Sometimes it scares my wife that if I see wrong going on, I'll say "That's wrong and I'd appreciate it if we didn't have to deal with that." And I mean, sometimes it's dangerous. Those people on the trains that are cussin' in front of old ladies and women -- I'm the one that says "Brothers. Brothers. Can we do a little better than that? Can we respect ourselves? Can we respect these ladies?" Sometimes that doesn't always sit well with the people that I approach. But I can't see it happen without somehow, if I can find a way in, in my influence as a human being and what I have accomplished as an actor - sometimes it makes people stop and listen to me. And whether they believe it or not or adhere to what I am saying or not, they will give me an ear most of the time if they recognize me.

DR:: It sounds like you are a person who is not afraid to stand for what you believe in - whatever that is.

RSH: That's what I am all about standing for what I believe in. That's what gets me up in the morning. Somebody asked me when I was at Sundance Film Festival recently "Do you wake up in the morning to write the 200 million dollar blockbuster?" and I said "No. I wake up in the morning to attack the distorted images of my people; to right some of the wrongs that have been done to us." In a little way if I do my part then when I look at my children and they see what I am all about, what I am standing for, what I am all about, then maybe they'll do a part to and then I'll have a family, a unit, a group of people trying to make a difference. Then that brushes off on another group and another and then we all stand together and speak in one tongue about righteousness and goodness.

MUSIC MAN Drummer Henderson, left, chews the fat with Kevin T. Carroll. Photograph: Carol Roseg

String theory

By Raven Snook, Time Out New York

Ghosts are haunting the Signature Theatre Company's revival of Seven Guitars, the fifth drama (chronologically speaking) in August Wilson's ten-play cycle exploring black life in 20th-century America. Wilson, who died this past October of liver cancer, is one of the spirits. The late Lloyd Richards, who helmed Seven Guitars on Broadway in 1996 and worked with Wilson for more than a decade, is another.

Eerily, the play opens with a group of characters gathered after a funeral to remember a departed friend. In fact, when the Virginia Theatre was renamed in the playwright's honor last year, that very scene was performed at the dedication ceremony. Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony portraying harmonica player Canewell in the original production of Seven Guitars, reprised his role for the tribute. Now he's trading center stage for a director's chair on the show that helped launch his career.

Set in 1948 and told through flashbacks, Seven Guitars is the tale of Floyd Barton (Lance Reddick), an impulsive blues guitarist who has one last chance to make it big and win back the woman he loves. He lives in Pittsburgh's Hill District, the tight-knit black community where Wilson was raised and in which he set nine of his plays. A pall hangs over Floyd's journey, since the audience knows from the prologue that he meets his maker.

Yet Floyd is so charismatic and vibrant that it feels like he's still alive even after his death. Santiago-Hudson, 49, feels the same way about Wilson and Richards, and he's passionate about carrying on their legacy. “Lloyd [as artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre] was the consummate mentor—not only to me, but to August and a number of African-American artists,” he says. “And now more than ever there's a hunger to hear August's words. I have a responsibility to these men. I quote them in every rehearsal. I even carry a card August gave me, just to have something he wrote with me.”

Santiago-Hudson's entire career seems to have led up to this production. He played real-life jazz legend Buddy Bolden in Jelly's Last Jam, his Broadway debut. His next role on the Great White Way—and the first time he worked with Wilson and Richards—was Seven Guitars, and while Bolden doesn't appear as a character in that show, he figures prominently in the plot. Although the drama was Wilson and Richards's final collaboration (the two famously had a falling-out, the details of which are vague), Santiago-Hudson continued to work with both men. He studied acting with Richards and appeared in Wilson's last Broadway offering, 2004's Gem of the Ocean.

Despite solid reviews and, according to Santiago-Hudson, the biggest box-office advance ever for a Wilson play, Gem shuttered after just two months, a few days into Black History Month. Santiago-Hudson was enraged. “They [the Jujamcyns, owners of the theater] wanted another tenant,” he maintains. “They wanted Doubt and they told us to go. It was a business decision that I took personally. Here's one of the most celebrated playwrights in American theater, who you can mention in the same conversation as Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill, and you cut him short? That was my wake-up call. I knew I had to take charge.”

Santiago-Hudson decided that he would direct Wilson's oeuvre. Toward the end of Gem's run, the actor approached Wilson and told him the plan. “He loved the idea,” Santiago-Hudson recalls. “He said that directing was the natural progression of what I had been doing all along.” On October 11, nine days after Wilson passed away, Santiago-Hudson made his directorial debut with his own production of Gem at Princeton, New Jersey's McCarter Theatre.

Seven Guitars may be only the second time he's helmed a Wilson work, but Santiago-Hudson insists it won't be his last. “I want to do all of them,” he says proudly. And apparently, some of his current collaborators want to help him. Stephen McKinley Henderson, a veteran Wilson performer and the first actor cast in the new Seven Guitars, is thrilled with the prospect. “We have a mission to make this work happen,” Henderson says. “It's about the continuation of us all as African-American artists.”

Seven Guitars is playing at the Signature Theatre Company.

DR: Would you say that's a driving force for you?

RSH: Yes.

DR: So if that's a driving force Ruben, what would you say is a guiding force?

RSH: Spiritually I read the words, not just studying the bible but of intellectual people that have a different sensibility - they have been raised to a different plateau in the clarity of life. People like Gibran, people like August Wilson - they are elevated thinkers. So what I do is I take the guidelines of people like that and people that I can touch, hug and hold like Nanny, who I wrote Lackawanna Blues about

-- her lessons.

Like some of the elders and some of the older people in the community who have gone through some things and have chopped down all the weeds and the high grass so that I could stand on the puttin' green. In my fight, I have a strong ground to stand on because the people who came before me chopped down all the rough, or at least a great deal of the rough part of it.

So I look at their example. Between my spirituality and my family and my education it kind of guides me in what I want to achieve.

DR: What would you say has been your biggest source of inspiration?

RSH: Rachel Crosby - Nanny.

DR: Tell me about that.

RSH: Well, you know, for her to take me in as a small child and instill values in me and provide for me and refuse to let me fail - is the reason I am standing here today.

DR: So Ruben, if you could wake up tomorrow having gained one new ability, an ability that you don't have right now, what would that be?

RSH: I think that ability would be to…if it could be supernatural... I would try to accomplish peace. If I had the magic touch of peace, if I could walk through lands and places and neighborhoods and create peace, that would be the one gift…I think from peace other things can be handled. Hunger could be handled. Poverty could be handled. Education could be handled if we all were at peace. I think there would be a clarity. Wow. I think they all go hand in hand. So, that's what I would love to be able to do.

DR: What scares you? You seem to be pretty fearless.

RSH: No, I'm afraid. I'm afraid for my kids. I am afraid for what this world has to offer them and what they have to go out in the world to face. With the whole world basically being in turmoil -- one religion against another religion, one race against another race, one sexual gender against another sexual gender - I am afraid for them. I am afraid of what they have to face and the toll that it can take on a human being. Obviously it has taken a toll on me. Life has beaten me up pretty good but I have had enough protectors and people blocking those blows, like Nanny and like my Godmother, Mama Overton - people who protected me by educating me, by instilling confidence in me, by instilling a spiritual ground and base in me.

I fear for the kids, my kids more than anything. That's the only thing that I am afraid of.

DR: Do you talk to your kids about what you are afraid of for them?

RSH: I tell them what my job is and my fear is that if something were to happen to them or if they were unprepared for life then I wouldn't have done my job. I am afraid of that. So, anytime that I ask them to do something in a discipline-sense and they don't do it, I say "You are getting in the way of my job and my job is very important to me."

I was telling my son this morning - it's about responsibility. You handle your responsibility and everything else falls in place. That's what freedom is. I told him our ancestors fought for freedom. When the Emancipation Proclamation came about, was that freedom? No. Freedom was when they became able to have to have the wherewithal to deal with their responsibilities and handle and complete their responsibilities. That's freedom! That I can go out and get what I need to get and provide what I need to provide for those who mean the most to me, whether that's in your church or your community or your house. That's freedom - that I can. They need and, that's a big task to get that.

This country, this world, this neighborhood, this life has given me the opportunity to go get what I need. I am ready to go get it. That's freedom. When they say you can't get that, you can't get an education, you can't sit in this restaurant, you can't get picked up by this car, then they are not giving you an opportunity to do what you need to do to get what you need to get, to provide. Freedom is being able to get all of those things that you need to get.

A person in his right mind is going to go out and try to get those things. He's not going to see his mother hungry. He's not going to see his sister sick. He's not going to see his neighbor weak or in need. All you want to do is say "Well hey, I can help with that. Let me just go out there and get it." But anytime somebody is getting in your way saying "No. We don't accept your kind. No. We don't want you in here.", they are stopping you from trying to provide and be whole and be the man and the person that God has put you on this earth to be.

DR: It's really appropriate that you are talking about this in light of the fact that Rosa Park's has just recently died and the overall climate in our society today. Do you have any thoughts that you want to share about that. I mean Rosa Parks certainly was an icon.

RSH: Rosa Parks, in her courage and in her belief and in her strength and in her perseverance, she paved the way for so many of us. But, what we can not be remiss in doing is realizing the network that held her up also.

There were a network of people; a community of people who refused to ever let anything happen to her or to let her fall. And that gave her the confidence and the stature that she needed to make this incredibly courageous stand that she took. She didn't do it by herself. There was a community. And what we have to remember as African American people is that is our strength - our community and how we come together in one voice and express the things that are most important to us.

DR: Rosa Parks was clearly a hero. I'd like to know whose hero you are.

RSH: Well, uh, I don't really know if I am anybody's hero. I don't know if I'm a hero. I don't know what that means really. So I don't think that I can really answer that in a good way.

DR: Do you ever get disappointed in yourself?

RSH: Yeah.

DR: What disappoints you and how do you reconcile that for yourself?

RSH: I don't go through a lot of trouble about it because I am human with all human frailties, vulnerabilities, sensitivities, mistakes - that's part of being human being. You learn from them though, so you don't make the same mistake twice.

I get disappointed at myself sometimes because…

I am very outspoken and I am very clear abut what I want and what I am and what I stand for and sometimes I get disappointed because I reveal it too much to too many people. It helps stagnate my growth and what I am trying to accomplish. Sometimes I can't hold my tongue…Like when they closed Gem of the Ocean on Broadway, I called a meeting with the producers and expressed to them that what they did was "not acceptable". It was "disrespectful" and that I would forgive them but I'll never forget them and the way that they treated me and my cast and August Wilson at this particular time…I told the producers that "I am quite aware of the way you are handling this and it is not good."

That hurt me. That hurt my career. If you or anybody else that's reading or hears this article thinks that didn't hurt me - they're crazy. They spoke about that -- in private. They talked about it.

DR: And how have you reconciled that for yourself?

RSH: I don't reconcile it. Do you mean the disappointment in sometimes not being able to hold my…

DR: No. How have you reconciled…

RSH: The damage?

Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Ruben at the 1996 Tony Awards

DR: …the aftermath.

RSH: All I did was take charge and do something else.

I started directing…I am going to go to my people. When I say "my people" I don't just mean black people, I mean people that believe in me and what I am about. I gonna go to my people. And say "I'm going to direct this. I am going to put it back up. More people need to hear this. I am going to direct this." And that's how I got to be directing Gem of the Ocean. I am directing that now because that set a spark underneath me. I am a person that takes things and turns it into energy. I am good with it. Maybe that hurt me in my career on Broadway, but it didn't hurt me in other things that I am trying to accomplish. It lit a spark up under me.

DR: So you will take an adverse situation and use it somehow?

RSH: Yeah. That's what I was always taught. Find out what you can use in any situation that comes up - good, bad or otherwise.

DR: What would you say has been your contribution to the world so far?

RSH: Well so far, I mean it's a small contribution but it's in trying to tell our stories, whether I am acting in them or writing them or directing them or producing them, it's trying to tell our stories with the strength and the love and, as I continue to use this word, the DIGNITY of our people, because it is what has been taken from us in the last three hundred years -- what we really stand for, who we are, our beauty, our intellect, our disdain, our rage.

When I am acting in a role, the guy is always whole. When you come and see me in a role whether it's Canewell in Seven Guitars or Caesar who everybody hated in Gem, you understand me. You don't have to like me but you understand me and you see a whole human being. That has been taken from us as a people. When you look at us on television, you rarely see a black actor on television on any of theses shows - and let's note that there is not one Black drama on TV and there has not been not one successful Black drama in the history of television because we haven't had that opportunity -- but you never see a person on television, a "brother' or a "sister", go home and hug. Rarely, I'll never say never - extremely rare - go home and hug their family and say "I love you." But white people do it each day, each night…

That is why you don't see a whole lot of "me" on television. I get offered that same mean cop every year. That mean, one dimensional cop that knows everything but the white hero solves the case. It makes my stomach hurt sometimes and it's hurt me because I won't accept that anymore. And right now, I need a job. So I am in a position where I should accept that. I am so vulnerable at this point that if it came by, maybe I would accept one…I have gone twenty five years…having very few roles that were whole. The only place that they let me be whole is on stage.

DR: So it creates this dilemma for you as an artist…

RSH: Yeah. Where do you turn? What do you do?

DR: And where do you turn? What do you do?

RSH: You start writing. You start finding those things that do speak to you. And that's why I always often mention August Wilson because he empowers us with that kind of dignity. No matter where we are and what your lot is in life, you come home and you mean something to somebody and you stand for something. He writes those kind of pieces. That's why I am always in his plays…learning them, teaching them.

DR: What will you remember him for the most?

RSH: Empowerment. He empowered us. He changed the lives of more artist of color than anybody in the history of theatre…I am talking about changing lives, not just providing a place to do plays. I am talking about changing lives by the opportunities that he has given you in a big way. August Wilson changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people of color. Whether they are sitting in the audience and are affected by what he wrote, what they saw or whether they had the opportunity to be a stage manager or director, an actor a producer of his work…

DR: And you? A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

RSH: I think I answered that earlier. That I was a good man. That I was a fair man and that I made a difference in the perception of my people and in the clarity of really who we are…I think that is the most important thing - that we each go out and make a difference in the stature of our people.

Thanks Ruben!

Lackawanna Blues

Based on the acclaimed autobiographical one-man show by Ruben Santiago- Hudson (who wrote the adaptation and appears in the film), and co-executive produced by the Oscar®- winning actress Halle Berry, this warm and vibrant drama is an inspiring story of coming of age, of a mother/son love that transcends biological ties, and of an extraordinary woman who built a community and circumvented segregation in her own determined way. Like a good blues song, the film strikes notes that are painful but beautiful, ones that remain alive to both the heartbreaks and joys of life.

Lackawanna Blues pays homage to an era gone by, taking an affectionate look at the ties that bind an African-American community in the period just before desegregation. The drama takes place primarily as a flashback to Santiago-Hudson's childhood, starting with his birth in the upstate NY town of Lackawanna during a raucous Friday-night fish fry hosted by Rachel "Nanny" Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson). As a boy in the 1950s and 60s, with his parents unable to take care of him, Ruben Jr. is essentially adopted by Nanny, proprietor of a rooming house and mentor to countless down-on-their luck blacks who moved there from Nanny's hometown in Virginia. Nanny's place is not just walls and a roof, but a home where misfits and drifters can escape their personal hells to find a fresh start and a family. Against this background, Jr. receives an education in life from a diverse and colorful group of boarders. However, his biggest bond will always be with Nanny, in a relationship that nobody, not even a pair of zealous social workers, can tear asunder.

Click here for more on Lackawanna Blues on HBO Films
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