NEW YORK – Lackawanna shows up everywhere in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s work.
It was there in 1992, when he broke onto Broadway as the hardworking cornet player Buddy Bolden in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” It was there in the cadence and tone of his Tony-winning performance in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” in 1996. And it was inarguably there in 2001, when Santiago-Hudson’s one-man play “Lackawanna Blues” debuted to rave reviews at the Public Theatre and was later adapted by the playwright into a hit HBO film that first aired in 2005.
And it was still there, right on the surface of things, on a recent rainy afternoon in the second-floor café of the Signature Theatre complex in New York City, where Hudson talked about his recent hit off-Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” which he directed.
“Lackawanna, when I came up, was a strong community, where everyone was linked from one thing or another to the next family, to the next person, to the next community,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I bring that to my rehearsal period. There’s at least one time in every rehearsal where we all come together in a circle and look at each other and allow each other to just talk, whether it was about what happened on the subway or who got married or who lost a parent, or who doesn’t feel good. And just be a community, and care about each other and nurture each other.”
That sense of community, directly influenced by his crowd-sourced upbringing and the network of people who played roles in raising him, comes through on stage in the innate sense of authenticity the characters share. That’s true just as much for huge casts, such as in Santiago-Hudson’s recent concert production of the 1940 musical “Cabin in the Sky” as it is for smaller affairs like “Skeleton Crew,” which features its own skeleton crew of five telling a story about the death of a Detroit factory.
“You see the family on stage,” Santiago-Hudson said. “You see the relationships already built before we even hit the stage. That’s my brother, that’s my sister, that’s my friend. That’s what I build. That’s Lackawanna.”
Morisseau’s play, which echoes the work of Santiago-Hudson’s late mentor August Wilson, concerns the complicated dynamic of four employees of an auto factory facing a shutdown in Detroit in the midst of the Great Recession. It’s a study of individual personality types – a foreman, a union rep, two downtrodden workers – out of which emerges a twin commentary on the uncomfortable racial and economic realities of life in the United States.
For Santiago-Hudson, the language of Morisseau’s work contains distinct echoes of Wilson’s musically tinged dialogue and his feel for characters from hardscrabble neighborhoods. But perhaps more importantly, it provides a platform for people of color to be viewed in three, fully fledged dimensions – a representation still remarkably difficult to find in the popular culture of 2016.
“In many plays and many TV shows and many movies, we’re never whole. We’re just attitudes and fragments of who we are. But in Dominique’s plays and August’s plays, we’re whole,” he said. “You never know the smells of their kitchen. You don’t know the language and games that their kids play. But white America is content to have it that way, so they can tell their story. They have the black boss, the black friend, the black co-worker. What about the black human being who is just like you, who you bled with, who you cried with, who you laughed with, or who you went to the movies with, or you went to dinner with?”
The sense of community that is so integral to Santiago-Hudson’s work on the stage and on television also flows back to his hometown, where the Ruben Santiago-Hudson Fine Arts Learning Center opened in 2014 as an outgrowth of the nearby Global Concepts Charter School.
He called the community-building lessons embedded in his career, “the most important part of my art.
“And that’s the reason I have the Ruben Santiago-Hudson arts center in Lackawanna: So kids can know the transformative power of art, so they can be introduced to something where they have a voice.”