Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Moment

The writer-actor-director wrote the screenplay for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — and has other high-profile projects coming out soon

| 09 Dec 2020 | 12:08

It may seem an odd time to say someone is having a moment. But I’ll say it anyway. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is having a moment.

In the entertainment world, he would be called the ultimate hyphenate: writer-actor-director. The film version of August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” has just arrived, screenplay by Santiago-Hudson. Adapting the gorgeous words of Wilson can be a challenging task, but Santiago-Hudson felt honored to be asked — by producer Denzel Washington and director George C. Wolfe — and he believed that he was the right choice.

“I had a two-decade friendship with August,” he explains. “Still, it was daunting, and exciting, as I wanted to honor him as a mentor and friend.” He had proved himself a few years before, directing the revival of Wilson’s “Jitney.” The production won the 2017 Tony Award.

“Ma Rainey” (from Netflix, where you will be able to watch from home shortly) stars Viola Davis, who is already being talked about for an Oscar. (She won Supporting Actress in 2017 for Wilson’s “Fences,” appearing alongside Denzel Washington) As is Chadwick Boseman: this was the last performance before his stunningly sad death earlier this year. Davis portrays a blues singer of the 1920s and Boseman is one of her band members.

While there were challenges in adapting a play for the screen, there was also, says Santiago-Hudson, a kind of liberation. “The story is absolutely intact,” he says, “but it enfolds cinematically, which means I can highlight different things, I can come in close, and pull back.”

“Real Visceral Change”

Interestingly, another play-turned-film — “One Night in Miami” — (from Amazon Studios) is arriving about the same time, and is also sure to resonate with the Black Lives Matter movement. That one tells of the actual night in 1964 when Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay (the last night he would use that name) spent hours in a hotel room drinking and arguing over their roles in society.

I asked Santiago-Hudson about the timeliness of these films. “It is sad if it takes people dying on the streets to get others to pay attention,” he says. Even in New York, he still faces what he calls subconscious racism. “I passed a guy on the street recently who was wearing a shirt from a college where one of my kids goes. I made some comment like ‘that’s my team!,’ and he said nothing and looked at me like I was about to ask him for money. That said, I do think there is real visceral change this time.”

Back to his moment. “Lackawanna Blues,” which Santiago-Hudson both wrote and stars in, has been announced as Manhattan Theatre Club’s opening show of its 2021 Fall season. The play was first performed in 2001, as a one-man show, was later made into an HBO film (directed by George C. Wolfe), but this will be its actual Broadway debut. It tells the story of Santiago-Hudson’s growing up years, being largely raised in a boardinghouse in that blue collar New York town. For its virtual fundraiser this month, MTC is auctioning off a private half hour zoom with ... who else? Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

In the meantime, what’s next for this multi-talented man? Well, he is developing a project about Sidney Poitier. Clearly, just meeting the 92 year-old legend made impact. “I visited him at his home in Los Angeles,” he recalls. “Sidney grabbed my hand and said, ‘you look good, man.’ I could die happy.”

“I had a two-decade friendship with August [Wilson]. Still, it was daunting, and exciting, as I wanted to honor him as a mentor and friend.” Ruben Santiago-Hudson