In How I Learned What I Learned, Ruben Santiago-Hudson conjures August Wilson’s past
Late in his life, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson added a grace note to the ten symphony-like plays that he penned about the 20th-century African-American experience. It was a solo show, How I Learned What I Learned, starring the writer himself.
Alone on the stage of Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003, under the direction of co-conceiver Todd Kreidler, Wilson told stories about the real people and events of his 1960s coming-of-age as a young poet in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In essence, he was revealing the personal building blocks that had helped form the characters, tensions, and histories that play out in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Fences, Jitney, Two Trains Running, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. (These are the plays of The American Cycle, as his main body of work is now known.)
The playwright died in 2005, at age 60, never experiencing the 2006-07 slate of Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, which had earlier named him the season’s Playwright-in-Residence. But Wilson had foresight about his one-man script: He entrusted its future to collaborator-director Kreidler, and he asked actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson to assume the role of “August Wilson.”
“August knew that I was an old soul like he was,” says Santiago-Hudson, who has stepped into the poet’s shoes for the New York City premiere of How I Learned What I Learned, now extended through Dec. 29 at Signature Theatre’s Alice Griffin Jewelbox on West 42nd Street. “Even though we were in young men’s bodies, we were old souls. We had similar backgrounds. The lessons we had been taught were taught by the same storytellers, the same people in the black community, though he was from Pittsburgh and I was from Lackawanna, [NY].”
Santiago-Hudson earned the writer’s friendship and respect for his performances in Broadway’s Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean, to say nothing of the actor’s own self-penned solo play Lackawanna Blues.
In fact, Santiago-Hudson’s mother was from the Pittsburgh area, so there was a kind of shorthand and common ground between the men. He spent 18 summers visiting the setting of most of Wilson’s plays, the African-American Hill District. He had breathed the air of the Crawford Grill and other landmarks of the Steeltown milieu. [Read more →]
December 2, 2013 No Comments
How the Globe juggles Richard III and Twelfth Night in the same Broadway theatre
This is Part I of our series on Shakespeare in rep. Read Part II, on how the team works with period-appropriate designs
“Here’s where we were lucky,” Bryan Paterson says, although he’s speaking of the kind of luck that tends to be created.
Paterson has worked since 1998 as a stage manager for London’s outdoor Globe Theatre, which will present as many as six productions in repertory, including three different shows in a single day. “It can get a bit complicated at times,” he says. So his latest assignment—a four-month Broadway stint that has brought a mere two plays, Richard III and Twelfth Night, to the Belasco Theatre—is downright leisurely by comparison.
“It’s a walk in the park here,” he says. And it has been made even easier for the fortuitous circumstances that Paterson mentioned earlier—specifically the ones made possible by Tim Carroll and Jenny Tiramani, the shows’ director and designer, respectively.
“We did Twelfth Night about 10 years ago, whereas Richard III only opened last year,” Paterson says. “So Jenny and Tim were very clever in designing Richard with almost entirely the same sets and props we had for Twelfth Night. Except for a few pole arms, it’s all the same swords and all the same furniture.”
But not the same dialogue, obviously, although Mark Rylance’s upbeat, rollicking rendition of Richard III’s opening monologue almost gives the play the sense of a comedy. Among his costars in both pieces is Samuel Barnett, who plays a reluctant semi-suitor (Viola) to Rylance’s Olivia in Twelfth Night and an unlikely would-be procurer (Queen Elizabeth) for the “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” in Richard III.
Barnett, who is pictured above as Queen Elizabeth and was last seen on the New York stage in The History Boys, says he much prefers having two different plays to perform on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “It never feels natural to me to do a matinee and then an evening of the same show,” he says. “I feel like, ‘I’ve already done this today!’” [Read more →]
November 8, 2013 No Comments
The writer and director of Luce keep things ambiguous (but not inscrutable)
If you don’t know what to make of Luce, then everything’s working out fine. The play, written by JC Lee and currently premiering in Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 series, is designed to keep us off-balance.
“I wanted to see how far we could go with people not understanding each other,” says Lee, who’s making his Off-Broadway debut. “That’s the dynamic of the play: People who live together for years can have one miscommunication that spirals out of control. How out of control can we get? Where will that take us? That’s my interest in the storytelling.”
Wires get crossed in the very first scene, when a concerned parent named Amy speaks with a teacher about her son, Luce. She adopted Luce from Africa when he was a small boy, and now he’s a bright and popular high school senior who seems to have limitless potential. But does he also have dangerous plans? Did his teacher uncover evidence that he’s about to commit a crime? Is it possible that Luce is not the perfect boy he seems to be, or is this all a giant misunderstanding?
As Amy tries to answer those questions, things only get murkier. Time and again, characters are either afraid to say what they feel or assume they’re being understood when they aren’t, and that means their choices are based on half-truths. Soon enough, their incomplete information results in heavy consequences.
A play like this demands careful work: If the writing or the production reveal too much, then the tension dissolves, but if they reveal too little, then it’s hard to care about what’s happening. So how did the creative team parse the difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity? [Read more →]
October 18, 2013 No Comments
Steven Rattazzi finds finds new depths in the darkly comic Marie Antoinette
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
In the last fourteen months, he’s been in three productions of the play, so you might think Steven Rattazzi has learned everything he can about Marie Antoinette, David Adjmi’s darkly comic spin on the downfall of France’s most infamous queen. However, there are elements of the show he’s just beginning to understand.
Not that there haven’t been constants: Rattazzi has always played King Louis XVI, whom Adjmi imagines as naïve and fearful, incapable of making decisions while the French rise against him. Bumbling through the play, he vacillates between infantile lunacy and heartbreaking cluelessness, like a manic clown and a frightened deer all at once.
When Rattazzi originally played Louis, last fall at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and then at Yale Rep a few months later, he was in a much different production. There were towering wigs and elaborate sets and even a scene where dirt rained from the sky. In its current incarnation at Soho Rep, almost all those flourishes have been stripped away. Now, the set is mostly a massive white wall with “Marie Antoinette” spelled out in large, off-white letters. The costumes and wigs are much more modest, and when they’re not performing, the cast simply watches from the sides of the stage.
The result puts our focus on emotional and intellectual battles. Even in outlandish moments, like when a talking sheep saunters on to make a political argument, there’s a coiled intensity to the action. We can’t forget we’re watching a drama, and not just a bit of pageantry.
That speaks directly to what Rattazzi has been learning about his performance. At first, he says, “I had an instant connection to the play and an assumption of, ‘Oh, I know David Adjmi. I worked on his play Stunning at LCT3.’ But the director and I worked hard on, ‘Well, you don’t exactly have it. I want to go deeper.’”
In other words, Rattazzi was already familiar with Adjmi’s sharply funny writing, but director Rebecca Taichman, who has helmed all three productions of Marie Antoinette, wanted more than laughs. “Rebecca loves the comedy in David’s plays,” Rattazzi says. “But she really wanted to deepen and strengthen the core of the relationships so that all of the comedy comes from a very deep place.” [Read more →]
October 16, 2013 No Comments
Bike America‘s heroine is a charming, frustrating mess
For any actor, no matter how experienced, it’s both exciting and daunting to carry an entire play—especially when the character is meant to be the voice of a generation (or at least a really loud and mouthy representative).
But that’s exactly the burden on Jessica DiGiovanni, an up-and-coming actor who’s only on her second Off-Broadway play. She’s currently starring in Mike Lew’s Bike America, a millennial coming-of-age dramedy that was produced at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre before Ma-Yi Theater Company brought it to New York. (The play opens Ma-Yi’s 25th anniversary season.)
It’s fitting that DiGiovanni made the transfer, even though her stage alter ego stays stuck in a rut. After seeing her as Penny—an emotionally disconnected grad student and self-declared screw up who impulsively goes on a three-month cross-country bike tour in the hope of finding herself—it’s hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role.
Unlike Penny, DiGiovanni is confident about her life’s calling, but she knows firsthand what it feels like to look at the road ahead and see only uncertainty. “I definitely was drawn to her right away,” she says. “Certain roles come into your life at certain times when you’re ready to deal with certain things. I know I really relate to this character in a lot of ways, and I think Moritz [von Stuelpnagel, the director] picked up on that in my audition.” [Read more →]
October 2, 2013 No Comments