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The Tony-winning performer, playwright and director on the healing properties of his autobiographical solo show
Ruben Santiago-Hudson knows what it's like to perform his theatrical memoir Lackawanna Blues in the wake of a world-changing crisis. Although his 1960s-set coming-of-age tale about being raised in an upstate New York boarding house by its empathetic proprietor Nanny premiered in April 2001, Santiago-Hudson ended up touring the piece across the country for two years after September 11, bringing its message of healing and hope to theatregoers who desperately needed infusions of both. Now, as the theatre industry cautiously restarts, Lackawanna Blues is once again offering a balm for audiences. Acclaimed for his work on August Wilson's Century Cycle play (he won a Tony Award for his performance in Seven Guitars, directed the Tony-winning revival of Jitney and penned the screenplay for the recent film adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Santiago-Hudson serves as playwright, director and star of Lackawanna Blues, currently in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It's an uplifting portrait of the imperfect but indelible people who helped shape him during his formative years, with Santiago-Hudson channeling more than 20 colorful characters. TDF Stages spoke with Santiago-Hudson about why he believes this is the ideal offering at this challenging time, his upcoming mounting of Skeleton Crew starring Phylicia Rashad and his honest take on Broadway's "Black season."
Raven Snook: You joined Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) as an artistic advisor last October. I know your relationship with the theatre goes back many years and that you directed Jitney for MTC in 2017. How did the position come about?
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: They came to me. With the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and a pandemic that made everyone stop and see what's really going on in our country, people with big hearts and big minds decided, let's make a change. And that's what happened with [artistic director] Lynne Meadow and [executive producer] Barry Grove at MTC. They said, "We really are serious about making a change. You've been working hard for parity and inclusion and integrity. We want you here; we want to join you in that fight and help us turn this thing in a different direction." So, I told them what it would mean, that it was going to cost money, because programs have to be implemented, certain hires have to be made and certain decisions have to be made. Some decisions are financial, and others are spiritual, emotional or intellectual. But, I said, "I'm not gonna stop fighting. I'm not gonna stop advising you when you don't want to be advised. And the results of the advice will determine how long I stay, and whether I'm being effective or not. If I'm not being effective, I don't need to be here." And Lynne wrapped her arms around me, and tears flowed from her eyes and mine. And we said, "It ain't gonna be easy, but we've got to do this." And so, I came on and they've honored that commitment and I've honored mine.
Snook: Why did you and your MTC colleagues decide to reopen with Lackawanna Blues?
Santiago-Hudson: Actually, before I came on as an artistic advisor, we had decided in 2018 that we were going to do Lackawanna Blues next season, which would have been 2019. But since we lost those two years almost, the next season is this season. And, apropos of the pandemic, the healing that Lackawanna Blues provides is really perfect—though it's not ideal to start this season with any play because everybody still has trepidation about coming to the theatre. But, we sat down, Lynne and Barry and I, and realized it's the best we can offer as far as healing is concerned. Lackawanna Blues is a gift to people who come to see it because it creates an opportunity for you to grieve. It creates an opportunity for you to accept the possibilities of humanity. What is community? What is grace? What is generosity? That is what Lackawanna Blues demonstrates, from the first word I say to the last. It's about the possibilities of human nature in all its goodness. There's a lot of incredible entertainment this year on Broadway. Hamilton, The Lion King and Wicked are back, The Music Man's coming in. But for enlightenment, to leave with a different understanding about humankind, that's Lackawanna Blues.
Snook: What's it like revisiting this show 20 years after its premiere? Are there lots of ghosts in the room? I know blues great Bill Simms Jr., who developed and toured the show with you, passed away in 2019.
Santiago-Hudson: The spirits are always around me—so many angels above me, you know? Nanny, Bill, Gregory Hines, Lloyd Richards, Douglas Turner Ward, Anthony Chisholm and now Michael K. Williams, who was in the movie [of Lackawanna Blues]. Bill was my partner for 20-some years in this artistic endeavor that we call theatre. He's the one who pushed me to take Lackawanna Blues to MTC in 2018. [Breaking into an impression of Sims Jr.] "You know, this president done gone crazy, and people killin' each other and we hatin' each other. We need Nanny. We need Nanny." So, we decided to take it to [LA's Mark Taper Forum], but Bill passed two weeks before we started rehearsals.
When we did Lackawanna Blues at The Public Theater from April to June in 2001, there was no 9/11. When 9/11 hit a few months later, we were totally scattered as human beings. We thought we were at war. We didn't know where to go, who did what, who hated who. All of a sudden I got a call from Emily Mann, [then the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre]. And she said, "We need Nanny. Who is going to tell us, 'It's going to be okay,' and we can sit back and just say, "Finally, we can breathe. I feel a little more safe. I feel a little more comfort and warmer now.'" So, we did it and it sold out. Other theatre people came to see it, and Bill and I had to take it on the road because everybody was asking for what Emily wanted for her community: a blessing, a prayer, hope. Then it was made into a movie . Even before [COVID-19] hit, there was another pandemic, a social pandemic with a president that still has us totally tattered and tortured and divided. And so, Bill said, "Nanny can bring us together."
Snook: Have you rewritten Lackawanna Blues significantly for this production?
Santiago-Hudson: Not in big ways, just refining, so when people read it and study it, they can get a little more clarity. I'm not publishing it for other people to do it. I'm just afraid that no one—and this could be my own insecurities—that no one will give these people who've always been on the periphery of life the integrity that I know they had. I don't think [other actors] will make them as whole as I knew they were. They won't know their sensitivities or their frailties. Instead of these people being the way I drew them up, they will just be caricatures. That's my fear.
Snook: Once Lackawanna Blues ends its run on November 12, you're immediately turning your attention to directing Skeleton Crew, which is the next production in MTC's Broadway lineup. You won an Obie Award for your unforgettable staging of Dominique Morisseau's critically acclaimed play Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016. What can you share about this new mounting?
Santiago-Hudson: I'm excited about Skeleton Crew. I'm excited that Dom wanted me to continue to work on it, because she's an extraordinary writer, a great humanitarian, and an amazing advocate for parity, inclusion and diversity. You know, diversity is not a word I like because it's a look. Inclusion is a whole mentality. And to have Phylicia [Rashad] with me again—I haven't had Phylicia since I directed her in [August Wilson's] Gem of the Ocean at the McCarter and performed it with her on Broadway. Originally, I wanted to do Skeleton Crew next season, cause I already have Lackawanna and I don't want to seem like I'm coming to MTC to do everything. But Lynne said, "Ruben, I don't care what it looks like. Skeleton Crew is the play that we would like this season, we want it. It's been a long time coming and people want to see it." So, I'm just over-excited. I've just got to calm my butt down and get Lackawanna done first!
Snook: This fall, seven plays by Black writers are opening on Broadway, including Lackawanna Blues and Skeleton Crew. That is unprecedented. Do you believe it's indicative of lasting change, or that next season will be a return to the Great White Way?
Santiago-Hudson: You know, you don't get many more plays on Broadway in a season, period! Now, seven Black plays? I wonder what it means. If all seven of them fail horribly, what does that mean? If all seven of them fly and are the biggest things this season, what does that mean? If it's half and half, what does that mean? I talked to one producer who's investing in a limited commercial run of a Black play, and I said, "Let me explain something to you: It took Denzel [Washington] 14 weeks to start making money on Fences on Broadway. Denzel! And you got a 12-week run with a no-name cast. And he said, "Well, we knew we were going to lose money when we invested. We just wanted to do the right thing." If you'd been doing the right thing, you would have put it in a slot where it would have a better opportunity to succeed. Because right now, last statistics I checked, something like 80-plus percent of dramas on Broadway fail to recoup. So, you put seven Black plays in that high rate of failure? Is there gonna be an asterisk saying, "We knew it wasn't gonna make money, but we did the right thing?" This is Broadway's Black season. We all have a hard road, but I want to see us all do well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Top image: Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Photo by Richard Radstone.