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Glowing reviews 3 with ties to WNY earn praise for work on N.Y. City hit

Three people with close ties to Western New York have earned glowing reviews in a major hit in New York City this theater season.

Signature Theatre's revival of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" -- directed by Lackawanna native Ruben Santiago-Hudson and including stage actors Stephen McKinley Henderson and Roslyn Ruff -- has sold out its entire run.

The show marks the New York City directorial debut of Santiago-Hudson, who previously made his hometown famous with "Lackawanna Blues," a solo play and then a film with an all-star cast on HBO. Henderson and Ruff were hand-chosen by Santiago-Hudson for the cast of "Seven Guitars."

Santiago-Hudson had acted in productions of Wilson's plays, winning a Tony award for the original production of "Seven Guitars." He speaks of the play as an opportunity to serve rather than to star.

"I am very deep into August's work, into his perseverance, anger and brilliance," Santiago-Hudson says in a phone interview. "He celebrates our culture as it had never been before."

Wilson was eminently conscious of legacy in its historic sense when he famously announced that he would write 10 scripts, each representing a decade of the 20th century. In turn, the characters in his plays, even as they carry out their everyday lives, are mindful of their pre-slavery heritage and an innate spirit.

Each year, Signature Theatre stages plays by a single U.S. dramatist. An August Wilson season for 2006-07 could not have been scheduled at a more opportune moment.

In 2005, as Wilson was writing his final two scripts, doctors advised him he had terminal liver cancer. The diagnosis was made public in August. By October, Wilson was dead.

"We often spoke of the lyrical scope of his plays," Santiago-Hudson says. Admiring the actor's vision of how the plays might otherwise look, sound and live on the stage, particularly through vivid use of music, ritual and dance, Wilson thought Santiago-Hudson should try his hand at directing. "So, who do I talk to about doing this," he recalls asking Wilson, rhetorically. Santiago-Hudson says the playwright replied, "You're talking to him."

>A deeper understanding

Henderson and Ruff say Santiago-Hudson's script from the original production of "Seven Guitars" was used almost like a bible in rehearsals. He would share many detailed notes from both Wilson and Lloyd Richards. Ruben's own notes, according to Henderson and Ruff, would further deepen their understanding about each day's work.

Henderson is a veteran of many productions of Wilson plays, in Buffalo, on Broadway and on tour in the United States and at England's National Theatre.

"There is so much more to unfold," Henderson says.

Ruff was a student of Henderson's in acting classes at the University at Buffalo -- another incidence of legacy enriching the "Seven Guitars" experience for these actors. Ruff's theater training continued at Harvard, with studies abroad in Russia before returning to tour with The Acting Company.

After "Seven Guitars" closes on Sunday, Henderson will return to Signature Theatre in February to appear in its production of King Hedley II, re-creating a role he played on Broadway. Then, he will be artistic adviser at Rochester's Geva Theatre Center for a project that will be known as "August Wilson's American Century."

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