TEDx: “Stray the Path… the Story of My Life”

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor, writer, director and graduate from the class of 1978, discussed how success and failure have inspired him.

Actor, writer and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brought words of inspiration to the TEDx crowd in the last speech of the day. In his talk, the artist spoke about straying off course in life and how those experiences define who you are.

Tycho McManus/Staff Photographer

Santiago-Hudson’s career since graduating from Binghamton University in 1978 has mostly been on the stage. In 1996, he won a Tony for acting in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” In 2001, he staged “Lackawanna Blues,” a play he wrote about the life of his childhood nanny. It won an Obie and later turned into an Emmy-nominated 2005 HBO film. Aside from work in theater, Santiago-Hudson has acted in television and film, most notably in the AMC series “Low Winter Sun” last year and the ABC show “Castle” from 2009 to 2011.

In his talk, titled “Stray the Path … The Story of My Life,” Santiago-Hudson shied away from discussing his career. Instead he decided to talk about a word from this year’s TEDx theme, “Stray the Course.”

“I thought to wrap this whole thing up, I wouldn’t get too analytical and I wouldn’t get too cerebral, that I would just have a conversation with you about that course,” Santiago-Hudson said.

Santiago-Hudson defined a course as “something that you follow to get to a goal.” He said that his resume showed the times people said “yes” to his projects, but it was the failures — the times people said “no” that made him work harder.

“People think that’s what I’m built on — all the things that I have achieved,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I’m equally built on all the things that I failed at. I’m equally built on all the ‘noes’ that I received.”

For Santiago-Hudson, experience is just as much about quantity as it is about quality because no one knows when a past experience might help in an unrelated discipline. He suggested taking classes outside of a specific course of study or comfort zone, like a theater major taking chemistry classes.

“One of the greatest roles I ever played was Doctor Percy Julian, a chemist,” Santiago-Hudson said. “And I learned how to pour my own test tubes, I learned how to make water into crystal and all that. It was interesting. That was the first time in my life that I was extremely interested in chemistry, because I was never good at that. I was the best I could be when I played that role.”

Failure and success, according to Santiago-Hudson, are secondary to integrity.

“Because there cannot be a price on it and it cannot be bought or sold. It is earned. By the life you live, by the way you present yourself, by the respect you have for your fellow man and the respect you have earned from them,” Santiago-Hudson said.

Pipe Dream sat down with Santiago-Hudson to discus his life and work.

Pipe Dream: You’re famous for being a multi-tasking artist — you’re an actor, a writer, a director. When you split your time and effort among so many disciplines, do you find it difficult to excel at an individual one?
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: No, every challenge that I take on, I want to be the best at it. That’s attributed to hard work, research, craftsmanship and as well as applying your craft, learning it. So anything you can do — you can do anything as long as you put the proper amount of time and work into it. You can’t assume you’re going to be good at something. It can’t be a whim. It has to be a definitive course that you take, a plan that you make, to get good at something. And if you have the talent and you discipline yourself, you can be good at it.
PD: Do you think that working in different disciplines informs your work in other disciplines? For example, your work as a director — does it help your work as an actor, or vice-versa?
RSH: Absolutely. Everything that I do, not just my work. Every experience I have adds to who I am, adds to the fabric of who I am. So yeah, my life experiences have made me better and my experiences in other forms of art make me better at it. If I draw, it makes me a better actor, it makes me a better director. So if I sing, it makes me a better performer. Anything you do builds.
PD: I know that you recently directed a revival of August Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson” and you played Wilson himself in the autobiographical play “How I Learned What I Learned.” I’m wondering, what attracts you to his work?
RSH: The celebration of African-American culture. The opportunity to see people of color as whole human beings. Not devices, not attitudes, but whole human beings. They don’t become one figment of being human, but they become total human beings. And August — no one celebrates African-American life with the vigor, with the integrity, with the truth, with the poetry, of August Wilson. He’s the top.
PD: So I know that your father was Puerto Rican and your mother African-American. How is your racial identity important to your career?
RSH: My career is secondary. It’s very important to me as a human being, because I embrace both cultures with the same amount of love, with the same amount of passion and compassion. I embrace being boricua as much as I embrace being African-American. I was raised by an African-American woman so my demeanor — the way I present myself, my language and my style and my accent is her accent — but my heart is still as Puerto Rican as it is black. So it means a lot because I’m representing both of those people and I’m representing them with the highest form of integrity.
PD: So you said that August Wilson, for you, is the person who’s the best at representing blacks as whole human beings, not as types —
RSH: — not representing, celebrating.
PD: Right, of course. Do you think there’s someone who you can look up to and you can point to where you can say “there’s the best at celebrating the Puerto Rican experience, the Puerto Rican human being?”
RSH: “Best” is the wrong way to put it. There are some very viable writers. Right now I just finished directing Quiara Hudes’ “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” She’s a Puerto Rican writer and more than anything she’s a writer. She writes people of Puerto Rican descent as whole. That word I’ll use again. Not pieces of who we are. In other writers’ work, we are only pieces of who we are, because they are not interested in our story. We are not on the center of the story, we are on the periphery. In Quiara’s plays, José Rivera’s plays, we’re in the middle of your vision, in the center of the world, not the outside of the world. So Quiara is a person to look at right now, in my opinion, and she will do great things. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and she continues to turn out works to celebrate people of Latino lineage.
PD: What qualities do you look for in someone else’s writing that makes you want to direct them?
RSH: The quality that I look for is truth. I like history and, like I said earlier, someone has to tell our stories. I don’t need to spend my career telling other people’s stories. I want to tell my stories, because they’ve been neglected forever. So that’s part of my purpose. I’m here for that. I’m here to make sure that my stories are told whether as a writer or director or an actor, and they’re told in the most profound, truthful way, and that they have a lot of integrity.
PD: So when you say “my stories,” do you mean black or Latino stories?
RSH: Yes, absolutely.
PD: Those are the stories you feel have been neglected and you feel have been on the periphery of American theater?
RSH: No your word “feel like” is wrong. It’s a definitive statement. It’s not an if, and or but. They have been neglected. There was an arrow when we had a Negro Ensemble Company, in National Black Theatre, in New Federal Theatre. They had a lot of vigor, and they had a lot of power. That power has been diminished after now, but they’re making a resurgence. That’s who’s telling our stories. The regular theaters around this country, they do their one black play a year, and they’ve filled their quota. If they do it. And so we have a new crop of wonderful writers coming up, wondering directors. So yeah, our stories have been neglected, but we’re coming back strong.
PD: The theme of this TEDx is “stray the course.” How do you feel that your career strayed the course?
RSH: The course that was set for other people was not the same course I took. I took the course of life that was gonna take me to a goal that I wanted, and that meant taking a lot of detours, taking a lot of pit stops. Being pulled and pushed in a lot of different directions other than the direction I was going. But I had to maintain my decorum and get back on the road of being successful. My goal was as an entertainer, a storyteller. So my life has been a life where I’ve taken a lot of courses to get to where I call success.
PD: How has your time at Binghamton influenced your career?
RSH: Binghamton, you know, I spent five years here. So I learned a lot, I saw a lot, I had great mentors. I had people that didn’t believe in me and people who did believe in me. Both of them, equally, gave me fuel. It made me want more, made me want to climb to the next rung on the ladder whether you appreciate me or did not appreciate me. I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, but it let me know that you had some people in your corner and some not. I had great people in my corner, like Loften Mitchell, like Percival Borde, like Don Boros — who’s still here by the way. And then I had people I won’t name, who thought I was not worthy. And so they inspired me as well. Not to prove to them that I was worthy, but I wondered why they felt that way. So I always just said “be the best I can be.” So if I approach something, I’m coming at it in full force. I’m coming well-calculated, but I’m coming full force.
PD: Aside from maybe teachers or encouragement, are there any writers that have influenced how your career is shaped? Is there perhaps a play that you looked at and you said “this is the type of work that I love and the type of work I want to play?”
RSH: We kind of covered that when we mentioned the name “August Wilson.” He is the example for me. He sets the bar, and he sets it very high. And the whole group of writers who are coming behind August — Dominique Morisseau, Victoria Hall, Tarell McCraney — these writers are following August’s footsteps and his shadow because attention came on August first, and it opened up that possibility for all of us. They’re all separate, different writers. They’re all different kinds of writers. But they all are walking in his shadow. And because of what he illuminated for us, we have a path to go around. So he set the bar, and these new writers that are coming up — these “younger” writers, because I don’t want to call them “new” — are following up, and they have a very high standard in their work. And a lot of it is because we look at August and what he achieved.