Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Brandon J. Dirden Discuss Two River Theater's Benefit Play Readings

Jul 20, 2020

Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson during a Zoom chat with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle. Actor Brandon J. Dirden also joined the discussion about the online benefit reading of "Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine" at Two River Theater in Red Bank
Credit Cassie Galasetti

 Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ  kicks off its series of benefit online play readings with Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine on Sunday July 26 at 7pm.  

The show originally premiered at Two River Theater in 2015.

Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine's playwright and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and original cast member Brandon J. Dirden joined WBGO News Director on a Zoom chat to talk about this explosive and hopeful examination of American's Racial Divide. 

An Upper West Side dinner party invitation brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race. Santiago-Hudson calls it a "truth play".

"There's a couple of plot twists and turns and things that are kind of surprises, but the real foundation of it is about human beings coming together.  Even though they are all good people, they have subconscious feelings or conscious feelings that if they reveal them would be upsetting to others in the room because everybody's reality seem to be different.  How everybody's mentality has been formed and shaped by society and even by America has warped certain thoughts,  particulary with white Americans because they have been informed and black Americans have not been informed as much of their lineage, their history, their contributions.  So this particular day, "Zeke", who Brandon plays, decides he's going to reveal exactly what he knows, which is a heck of a lot to a world that doesn't know who we are as people.  He starts really speaking his truth which iniatiates truth from other people that we might not agree with or agree with.  So that conflict is evident from the beginning on end.  But it is cloaked in love, it is cloaked in humanity, it is cloaked in poetry.  I think it will be quite entertaining and valuable for people to tune in to."

The online reading gave Sanitago-Hudson an opoprtunity to update the script.

"Well as the world turns and the world continues to evolve, I continue to evolve as a writer, as an actor, as an entertainer, as an activist, as a father and you know as a husband.  So as I see more clarity I like to expose that clarity in my writing and performing.  I thought I could refine things and make people's intentions clearer. When John (Dias) asked me to revisit it, he asked what I wanted to do, I said I really want to take a look at it again and find out what is not clear to me as an audience and how I can make it better.  One of the big things that helps me make it better is  having the cast I have. They elevate my words into something that I don't even image is capable until they take it and own it.  So first I wanted is to invite them back into the room.  Unfortunately, Charles Weldon had passed on.  But fortunately, Glynn Turman, Emmy Award winning actor came in to join the cast.  So it gave me a chance as a better writer and as a more evolved human being to reflect that."

The online reading cast of "Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine"
Credit Two River Theater

Leading the brilliant case is Brandon J. Dirden.  Dirden, a favorite as an actor and director at Two River Theater, says what touches him about Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine is the truth of it.

Dirden told Doyle he wondered what the late acclaimed writer and activist James Baldwin would have thought about the play.

"He didn't seeing theater was daring enough at the time or ready to hear the whole truth.  Maybe had this script been done in the 50's he wouldn't have felt that way.  He would have felt that theater had the courage to tell the truth.  Whenever Ruben (Santiago-Hudson) calls, I do my absolute best to be there for him because I know I'm going to be a better artist and better person from the experience.  I think we're all better for being on the ride."

Actor Brandon J. Diren, who plays "Zeke" in "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine" chats with WBGO's Doug Doyle during a recent Zoom session.
Credit Cassie Galasetti

Have recent events in the U.S. changed Dirden's approach to Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine?

"I can't say it changed my approach to the play.  My approach to the play is consistent.  I know I have a lot more information, self knowledge, so in terms of an artist I think this go around I was able to find more nuance.  The play is what the play was then in term of what Ruben was aiming for.  The essence of it, the DNA of it is unchanged.  Hopefully the audience has changed to where they can hear and be more susceptible to receiving what brother Ruben is offering to us.  It's a real opportunity for self discovery, self discovery as a nation, as a people, who have not dealt with the trauma of America's past."

The reading will feature other original cast members Merritt Janson, Roslyn Ruff, Andrew Hovelson and Glynn Turman coming on to play the role of "Zebedee".

The proceeds of the live reading does to support Two River Theater.  Proceeds will be matched by a generous donor to benefit five organizations with a pressing need due to the impact of systemic racism and COVID-19.  The beneficiary parther for this reading, slected by the playwright and writer, is the Ruben Santiago-Hudson Fine Arts Learning Center, a non-profit affiiliate of the Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna, New York, Santiago-Hudson's hometown. 

Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ
Credit Two River Theater

Two River Theater Artistic Director John Dias has said Your Blues Ain't Swee Like Mine struck a nerve in its audiences and helped dismatle some of the barriers to an open conversation about race.

The online benefit event tickets for the series of five readings includes access to live post reading Q and A's with the artists involved.  Two River Theater will also stream the reading on YouTube the following Monday, July 27 at 10am and Thursday July 30th at 7pm.

Click above to hear the entire conversation or visit the WBGO 88.3 FM Facebook page to hear and SEE the Zoom chat.