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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 17,
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
one-man play "Lackawanna Blues." We spoke by phone just
after news came that America had begun military action in Afghanistan.
McCarter Theater invited Santiago-Hudson to bring his acclaimed
play to Princeton as a replacement for the previously scheduled
Notes" by Richard Nelson. Soon after the terrorist attacks of
September 11, artistic director Emily Mann decided to cancel
Notes" because of its subject: an American politician’s
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
Roma, in a fine production of David Mamet’s "Glengarry Glen
that also featured Charles Durning. The actor and writer has
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
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
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
(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
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
The 44-year-old Santiago-Hudson plays not only the voice of
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,
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
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
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
("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
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
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
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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