Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 17,

2001 edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Ode to the ’50s

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

September 11, artistic director Emily Mann decided to cancel

"Vienna

Notes" 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, 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.

The play’s Public Theater production 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 well-being 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."

After the past month of alarming and dismaying events, I, for one,

am ready to sit in a darkened theater to hear Santiago-Hudson’s voice

so that he might, indeed, soothe this restless individual.

— Simon Saltzman

Lackawanna Blues, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Opening night for Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one-man

show. To November 4. $30 to $43. Friday, October 19, 8 p.m.


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