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The Many Lives of ‘Lackawanna Blues’

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Journey from Stage to Screen and to the Taper


Pictured: Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Photo by Benedict Evans.

When Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues first premiered Off-Broadway in 2001 at The Public Theater, The New York Times lauded it as so humble and warm that the honesty of its spirit is never in question. That honesty was in part due to its directness: Santiago-Hudson was both playwright and solo performer embodying the people he lived alongside while growing up in a boarding home in 1950s Lackawanna, New York. But at the center of the story was the woman who raised him: Miss Rachel, or Nanny, as a young Santiago-Hudson called her. The play won a special citation Obie Award, as well as an Obie for the composer and musical performer Bill Sims Jr. for his original compositions.

After its initial success, Lackawanna Blues went on to play at regional theatres across the country, including the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Now, Santiago-Hudson is reviving Lackawanna Blues for the first time in over 15 years—bringing it to Los Angeles audiences at the Mark Taper Forum March 5 – April 21, 2019.

Since Bill and I did the play, I don’t think a week or two went by without someone mentioning it and asking if we were going to do it again, Santiago-Hudson recounted to us in a recent interview. It’s uncanny; it lives so strong in so many people’s hearts and minds.

This is in part because in 2005 it was adapted into an HBO movie that was penned by Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe. It took a principal cast of over 20 actors—including Terrence Howard and S. Epatha Merkerson—to embody all the colorful characters from the original production. The film garnered much praise from fans and critics alike, as well as a multitude of award nominations, winning Merkerson both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Nanny.

The film had its own life, remembered Santiago-Hudson. It was great to empower other actors and empower them with my interpretation of those characters. That was really refreshing to see and to know that other people could interpret those relationships I had and make them very personal to themselves. They all came to give their heart and soul to it and pay respect and celebrate that part of their life, their history, their upbringing.

Lackawanna Blues is part of a long history of works moving from stage to screen (or vice versa) at Center Theatre Group. Many productions that have graced our stages have also become critically acclaimed films, such as Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, which premiered at the Taper in 1978, adapted into a Golden Globe-nominated film in 1981, and returned to the Taper in 2017. Other plays that have premiered at Center Theatre Group—including Angels in America, The Shadow Box, and Children of a Lesser God—have followed a similar trajectory.

Santiago-Hudson is also directing this remount of Lackawanna Blues at the Taper, along with reprising his memorable performance. Although L.A. audiences may find the play’s East Coast setting foreign territory at first, Santiago-Hudson affirmed that those same communities that existed in Lackawanna and Buffalo [in the 1950s] exist in L.A. Audiences will see their grandmothers, their mothers, their aunts who worked so hard to make a way and to provide all the wherewithal to be healthy mentally and physically. It’s still there onstage, he added.

Santiago-Hudson also hopes that audiences come open-minded and open-hearted and sit back and let me share something with you that’s precious, not only to me but to anybody who knows what the word ‘mother’ means, he said. Nanny had enough love for all of us—anybody who doesn’t think this much love exists in the world, get ready to get a dose of it.

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