Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s career got off to as auspicious a start as one could hope for. His very first film role was a small part in the star-studded “Coming to America.” Thirty years later, he is still going strong, appearing regularly in television and film roles. His latest is band director of fictional HBCU, Georgia A&M,in BET’s upcoming “The Quad,” which also stars Anika Noni Rose and Jasmine Guy. As familiar with stage as he is with screen, Santiago-Hudson has won a Tony for his acting in “August Wilson’s Seven Guitars” and an Obie for directing “The Piano Lesson,” also an August Wilson play.

It is fitting then that he is directing the production of “August Wilson’s Jitney,” currently on Broadway. “Jitney” is a workplace comedy-drama that tells the story of a group of gypsy cab drivers, with a special emphasis on the broken relationship between the owner of the cab company, Becker, and his son, Booster, who has just been released from prison. Like many of Wilson’s 10 plays, it takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where the playwright himself grew up. Although the Lackawanna born and raised Santiago-Hudson went to school for acting (BA in acting from SUNY Binghamton and MFA in acting from Wayne State), directing was always something that he knew he wanted to do.

“I just wanted to tell my stories,” he said. “I didn’t know what it would entail—actor, director, writer. I just wanted to tell my stories depicting Black people as whole human beings, not just as caricatures, facsimiles.”

It was the legendary Wilson himself who got Santiago-Hudson directing again. “I had been directing for decades and I took a leave,” he said. “I stopped directing about 20-plus years. He was the guy that inspired me to direct his plays, that I should be directing again so I took his cue and jumped back in.”

For “Jitney” in particular, Santiago-Hudson approached the famed Manhattan Theater Club about staging a production of the play and they ultimately agreed. “It was just that it needed to be done,” said Santiago-Hudson. “Anytime would have been the right time. The impetus of it was August had written 10 plays and only one had not gone to Broadway and that was ‘Jitney,’ and when August was ill, he and I discussed it and I made a vow to him that I would do everything in my power to complete the cycle of 10 plays written and 10 plays on Broadway. I needed to find a way—the wherewithal—to do the final play which was ‘Jitney,’ which had an extraordinary life off-Broadway but had never opened on Broadway.”

“Jitney” is a play of incredible energy and deep emotion. Michael Downing, editor of the August Wilson website and blog and associate professor of English at Kutztown University, remarked, “The beats of the characters, the rhythms of the language, the overall flow and tempo … it’s like hip-hop onstage, punctuated by the regular ringing of the telephone. It crackles. The telephone itself is an excellent device for Wilson, as it enables him to add even more language nuance to the play. As has been established, Wilson’s ear is one of his significant strong points. With the telephone, we get to hear Becker and occasionally other characters speak into the phone and to other characters onstage. In this way, the play actually represents two levels of dialogue, an ‘internal’ voice, used within the jitney station and an ‘external’ voice, used to speak to customers.”

Santiago-Hudson suggested that the play’s relevance today is furthered by the nascence of on-demand car services such as Uber and Lyft. He shared that Wilson first wrote the play “from the position of the son and then later he rewrote it.”

“He later approached it from the father’s position because he was a father then,” Santiago-Hudson explained. “So it evolved.”

“Jitney” was the first of Wilson’s 10 plays often termed the Century Cycle because each one takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the only one to be set outside of Pittsburgh, has already had a Broadway run and takes place in an earlier decade, but Jitney was written first.

After starting production, Santiago-Hudson got the news that musician John Legend had come in as a producer. He said, “I got a call one day that John Legend was coming on board, that he was an August Wilson fan and he wanted to help in any way that he could. I don’t know how he got involved, but I was like ‘great sounds good to me.’ He has great integrity and he is concerned about our image and our art.”

Theater is obviously a different animal than film or television. Santiago-Hudson stated, “The most challenging aspect is probably just balancing all the different personalities. Finding out what each person needs to function at the highest level and to feel like they have been afforded the proper time and respect that they need to be the best at their craft.”

As a director in theater, he has a lot more power. “There are differences because in the theater the writer and director have the power,” he said. “On TV, it’s the producer. In film, it could be the director or the star or both. The writer’s power gets pushed to the side. In film they buy the writing and do what they feel they want to do with it. Not in theater. The writer has a very significant voice. He or she and the director are the main voices in that room thinking about what the play needs, what the story needs to be as impactful as possible.”

“Jitney” is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. For more information, visit