With all the turmoil going on, I hope my voice will be the voice to hear, to soothe restless souls and individuals, says Ruben Santiago-Hudson during a rehearsal break for his autobiographical one-man play Lackawanna Blues. We spoke by phone just minutes after news came that America had begun military action in Afghanistan. McCarter Theater invited Santiago-Hudson to bring his acclaimed one-man play to Princeton as a replacement for the previously scheduled Vienna Notes by Richard Nelson. Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, artistic director Emily Mann decided to cancel that play because of its subject: an American politician's self-absorbed behavior in the midst of a terrorist incident. "We want to present a reminder of what is best in humanity in the face of evil," she said, "to show how all of us can, through our continued work, help in the healing process."

Santiago-Hudson made a memorable impression at McCarter Theater two years back in the role of the smooth talking, money-hungry young salesman, Roma, in a fine production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross that also featured Charles Durning. The actor and writer has maintained his ties with its artistic staff. "When I had just begun to write this play, it was McCarter's Emily Mann and [artistic producer] Mara Isaacs who invited me to work on it here," says Santiago-Hudson. When it was completed, however, "the Public Theater got to me first. But here I am now." Mann describes Lackawanna Blues as a joyous, and life-affirming piece.

Opening night is Friday, October 19, 2001 for the production, directed by Loretta Greco, with musical support by jazz musician Bill Sims Jr. With set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho and lighting designer James Vermeulen, this is the same ensemble of artists who produced the world premiere of Lackawanna Blues at New York's Public Theater this spring. That mounting gathered enthusiastic reviews and a three-month extended run. Writing in the New York Times, Bruce Weber observed that Santiago-Hudson "has a fine ear, and he manages both to capture the music of race and ethnicity and to distinguish each voice from the generic with personal idiosyncrasy."

Santiago-Hudson, whose Broadway credits include Jelly's Last Jam, opposite Gregory Hines, and August Wilson's Seven Guitars (a performance that won him the 1996 Tony for best supporting actor), says the theater bug first hit him in third grade when he was chosen to play Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer. "That was my first experience with non-traditional casting," he says with a note of irony.

Lackawanna Blues represents a very personal and important theatrical experience for author and star Santiago-Hudson. It is a project of love, written and performed as an ode to Rachel Crosby, the woman who effectively raised him. Crosby was known as "Nanny" to the boy Ruben and to the myriad men, women, and children who lived in her two boarding houses in Lackawanna, New York. Santiago-Hudson describes Nanny, who died in 1989, as "a rock for all those in need" and someone who "always gave us hope and a hot meal." The 44-year-old Santiago-Hudson plays not only the voice of "Nanny," the woman and earth mother he is honoring, but 21 other characters who populate his Lackawanna of 1956.

Asked if he was concerned about the lack of intimacy in the 1,100-seat McCarter Theater, his answer was an emphatic No. "How many times have you gone into a big theater and heard one performer play a piano, or one actor reading from someone else's work, and it just cuts you to the bone - tears your heart out?", he asks.

Born and raised in Lackawanna, New York, outside Buffalo, Hudson says he will be forever indebted to the love and kindness shown to him by Nanny, who took charge of his upbringing. Of African-American and Puerto Rican parentage, his mother, who suffered from drug addiction, and his father, a railroad worker, were simply not there for him. Interestingly, Santiago-Hudson says he harbors no anger or resentment towards his parents and keeps in touch with his mother. His father is no longer living. This feeling of wellbeing undoubtedly comes from the nurturing he got from Nanny, who was there for him when he finished high school and went on to college on scholarships designed for "disadvantaged students." Writer Loften Mitchell, professors Von Washington and Don Boros, and dancer Percival Borde are among those who subsequently encouraged Santiago-Hudson to pursue his dream. He earned his BA in theater at State University of New York at Binghamton in 1978, and his MFA in 1981 at Wayne State University in Michigan.

Santiago-Hudson does not remember exactly when or how he got the idea to dramatize Nanny and her world. "I was always talking about her wherever I went," he says. "Everybody knew Nanny. I always knew I wanted to create a tribute to this wonderful woman and the community of people that she helped." It was finally George C. Wolfe of New York's Public Theater who told Santiago-Hudson, "You've got to write about her," and gave him a commission. At that time Santiago-Hudson was enjoying acclaim for his role as Henry VIII in the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's summer outdoor production. On Wolfe's advice, he just sat down and wrote his recollections of the bustling blue-collar town of his childhood. Later, with the help of Wolfe (who insisted everything "be honest and truthful"), dramaturg John Dias, and director Loretta Greco's "keen eye for detail," the play was woven together, ready for workshop sessions at the Public.

Santiago-Hudson made his New York stage debut in A Soldier's Play in 1981 at the now-defunct Negro Ensemble Company. Although he says that nobody was knocking his door down after he won the 1996 Tony, he says it did give him a sense of validity. And if Broadway was slow to respond to this talented actor, Hollywood was not. Hudson landed a role in "Devil's Advocate" opposite Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, as well as a role in the David Caruso TV drama "Michael Hayes." Other TV roles have included "Rear Window," plus episodes of "Law and Order," "Touched by an Angel," "West Wing," "NYPD Blues," and on the long-running soap-opera "Another World."

Unlike many actors who never seem to know what's next, Santiago-Hudson says, "I always keep a bunch of `nexts.'" That's important for an actor with a family. He and his wife Jeannie are the parents of five-year-old twin boys. But it was his dream of Nanny, who empowered all the people around her with a sense that they belonged and could do something with their lives that Santiago-Hudson is giving back to the world. "It's all about what Nanny gave," he says. "Word traveled and people came from all over the country and would knock on her door. Nanny would say, `C'mon in. We'll put you up here, and tomorrow we'll find you a job and an apartment.'"

Among those people who Santiago-Hudson lovingly sketches and portrays are Ol' Po' Carl, an African-American baseball player prone to malapropisms ("beauty is in the behind of the holder" and "New York is marked by the Statue Delivery"). Other characters include a one-legged man Nanny bails out of a mental institution who "looked like a giant Negro iguana," a pair of battered wives, and Uncle Bill, who became Nanny's lover and a permanent fixture at the house until his death in 1981.

Since the play's staging, Santiago-Hudson has received letters from people who recognize these New Yorkers, writing "That was my father," or "that was my uncle;" and always, "thank you for not letting him be forgotten." It is striking to hear Santiago-Hudson speak today of Lackawanna back in the 1950s as a place where there was no homelessness and no hunger. "It was a community where we all looked after each other and everybody's needs were answered by someone or by the community in general," he says. "It's like what we're seeing in these disastrous times in New York City, where we are all starting to pull together."



Key Subjects: 
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lackawanna Blues, McCarter Theater, George C. Wolfe
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
his article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 17, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
October 2001