Interview: After 20 Years, Ruben Santiago-Hudson Brings His Lackawanna Blues to Broadway
The Tony winner's much-loved solo show is currently running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Lackawanna Blues has been a long journey for Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The story of his youth — and being raised in a boarding house by a woman affectionately called Nanny — this solo play with music was first seen at the Public Theater at the dawn of this century, and not only toured the country, but became a film for HBO. The writer/performer/director put the show to bed for well over a decade, but the ascension of President Trump and the subsequent countrywide upheaval, made him dust it off and bring it back. The show is now running on Broadway via Manhattan Theatre Club at the Friedman Theatre.
This run will be a little different for those who saw the play in the early 2000s. For starters, Santiago-Hudson has taken the reigns as director from his original collaborator, Loretta Greco. And his original onstage companion — the incomparable blues musician Bill Sims Jr. — passed away in 2019, right before they were scheduled to do the play in Los Angeles. Playing the blues on stage now is one of Sims's band mates, Junior Mack.
But still, the heart of Lackawanna Blues is the same. It's the story of kindness, which, after the last year, is perhaps the most important thing in the world.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about when you started putting this piece together and how you realized that it would be an evening of theater, and later a film.
I had been telling stories about this very unfamiliar upbringing to a lot of people. It was unfamiliar to everybody because it was, to them, unique, but it was my way of life, coming up in a rooming house with these people that had come from all over and had different needs, and this beautiful woman who provided what they needed, whether it was mentally, spiritually, physically, or was just a good bowl of soup. I told the story to George C. Wolfe and he was like "Well, you know, somebody's got to write it," and I'm like "Yeah, well who?" and he said "You," and he sent me a commission. That was in '99 or 2000. I went to writing it and that's when it became theater.
We did it, Bill Sims and I, and we sold out the Public Theater for 10 weeks. We thought we were going to transfer it, but nobody would do it. All the producers kept saying "What do I do with this? One guy playing 20-some roles…Not one costume change…This guy on stage doing incredible things….We don't know what to do with it."
It sat there until 9/11, and then everybody said "Where's this woman that said everything's going to be alright?" So I put it back up, and the first place we did it was the McCarter, going from 140 seats at the Public to 1200 seats. We took it on tour for two years and we gave a little healing to the communities that were in desperate need for some of that.
And then I was asked by a friend of mine — I don't want to name drop, but it was Halle Berry, who won an Oscar and asked me and Bill to do a private presentation for her and 200 guests, because she wanted to give something special to the people who had supported her for the Oscar campaign [for Monster's Ball]. So we did two performances, and everybody was there. Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance and Sam Jackson and Oprah's people, and then everybody's lie "We gotta make a movie. We gotta make a move now." But I wasn't giving anyone control of this. So we made the movie, and that's how it became a movie for HBO.
You put the show to bed after that, but I know you did it at Center Theater Group in 2019. What made you decide to come back after all those years?
I took it to CTG to dust it off. Michael Ritchie had been trying to get me there for a while and Bill came to me and he was like "Man, this president, he got the whole country messed up. We need Nanny." That's when he convinced me. So I called Michael and said "Let's do Lackawanna," which he had done at Williamstown in 2001. So I dusted it off, and at the same time, I was talking to Lynne Meadow and she said "We need that piece so bad, let's do it." Then the pandemic hit.
And I know Bill passed away a month or so before the CTG run started. Is it strange to be doing the show now without him?
He was a great man and I miss him dearly. He composed probably 15 projects for me, but Bill and I weren't only collaborators. We were brothers. We were as close as you can be without having the same mother. He was my partner-in-crime and enjoyment. We'd check in — "I ain't talked to you in three days, you alright? Do I have to come get you?" He would drop off a bottle of wine for me. We'd go to dinner. We'd have oysters. We hung out and told a bunch of lies to each other.
I was trying to get somebody who can play the stuff Bill played with the feeling that Bill had, and in a way that it mattered to them the way it mattered to Bill. I'm lucky to have his band mate, Junior Mack, with me now, and he is the closest thing to Bill. He's a beautiful spirit and an extraordinary musician. He doesn't compete with Bill and I don't put him in that position. He just plays his heart out.
How does it feel to be back?
We're looking forward to sharing the event — theater is something that I've done every year for the past 50 years of my life, and all of a sudden, it was not there and I felt empty. I would go sit in the Friedman — the engineer would open it up and just let me sit there, nobody could come, and I'd walk on the stage, and, like therapy, I'd do Winter's Tale and Troy Maxson and Raisin the Sun. So, joy is the word, but that pales in comparison to how the feeling is to be back.