STAGE TO SCREENS: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, S. Epatha Merkerson and George C. Wolfe Chat About "Lackawanna Blues"

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, S. Epatha Merkerson and George C. Wolfe Chat About "Lackawanna Blues"
 
This month we check out the cable movie "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO, Feb. 12, 8 PM ET), a powerful memory tale that lingers in the memory.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson in
Ruben Santiago-Hudson in "Lackawanna Blues" Photo by Bob Greene/HBO

We speak to its writer, Tony-winning actor (Seven Guitars) Ruben Santiago-Hudson; "Law & Order" actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who stars as Rachel "Nanny" Crosby; and its director, George C. Wolfe, a two-time Tony winner (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Noise/Funk), who makes an impressive behind-the camera debut.

Wolfe elicits exquisite performances from a stellar cast, including Jimmy Smits, Jeffrey Wright, Henry Simmons, Louis Gossett Jr., Ernie Hudson, Delroy Lindo, Rosie Perez, Macy Gray, Charlayne Woodard, Kathleen Chalfant, Liev Schreiber, Patricia Wettig, Mos Def and Santiago-Hudson.

The movie is based on Santiago-Hudson's one-person autobiographical play, in which he performed more than 20 characters. It began at the Off-Broadway Public Theater (commissioned by Wolfe, its artistic director) and received a 2001 Obie Awards' Special Citation. When he toured in the show, Santiago-Hudson received a 2004 Helen Hayes Award as Lead Actor, and the drama tied for Best Play.

Santiago-Hudson, who often spoke about his childhood memories, was encouraged by Wolfe to write them down. The two have known each other since Jelly's Last Jam, the 1992 musical that marked the Broadway debuts of both actor and director.

Set in 1956 Lackawanna, New York, a steel town on the banks of Lake Erie, the action mainly takes place in the boarding house run by Nanny, who delivers baby Ruben and raises him when he's abandoned by his mother. Playing young Ruben in "Lackawanna Blues" is the remarkable Marcus Carl Franklin, who appeared as Tonya Pinkins' younger son in Wolfe's most recent Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change. Which experience — the "Lackawanna" play or movie — has been the bigger thrill for the actor-playwright? "I can't say yet," he claims. "I have not seen the film with an audience." However, Wolfe isn't buying that: "He's lying, lying! Of course, he's going to say, 'Me performing.'" I suggest that perhaps Santiago-Hudson's reply was due to modesty. Insists the director, "Too late for that!"

***

Indeed, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has scant reason to be modest. In addition to having turned his esteemed stage piece into a sensational teleplay, which brings to life the colorful, fascinating parade of characters who enriched his childhood, the Tony winner can currently be seen on Broadway in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean.

Come March, he co-stars with Halle Berry in the ABC-TV movie, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." "It's taken from a novel by Zora Neale Hurston and is a coming-of-age story, set in 1906, about a woman trapped on a farm. I play the first black mayor in America, who sweeps her off her feet and takes her off the farm, but I don't show her the love she needs."

Later in the year, he plays African-American chemist Dr. Percy Julian on PBS. "Dr. Julian achieved many things, but always said that it was half of what he could if he didn't have to fight racism." Santiago-Hudson just bought the rights to a novel that he's turning into a screenplay, is finishing a new play and working on a sitcom. Also, he and his wife, singer Jeannie Brittan, are raising eight-year old twins. The schedule sounds hectic but seems better than waiting for the phone to ring. "I wouldn't do that anyway. If it was the case, it couldn't be the case. I'd have to go write something, do something, volunteer," he claims.

I tell him how much I liked "Lackawanna Blues," and add that it transcends race. "You can really see that when you tour it," he responds. "It's amazing. People from different cultures know this experience and know this person [Nanny]. I always thought everybody had this person, until someone walked up to me and said, 'I never had her, and I always needed her, wanted her, and finally you gave her to me.'

"My whole life, I've been telling stories about this woman who was a rock. I so selfishly wanted her to just be mine, but that was impossible, because she belonged to everybody. I've talked about these incredible people who seemed to have nothing but had so much to offer me."

The movie's cast reads like a Who's Who. "I could do the movie again with a completely different cast, and it would still be a Who's Who. The funny thing is that I forget that that's Jimmy Smits or Lou Gossett or Jeffrey Wright. It's kind of corny, but I forget that these are wonderful actors. I get caught up into the community in that house.

"My twins, Trey and Lily, are in the movie. They play the children [of Julie Benz and Henry Simmons] who are brought to Canada [to find refuge with grandmother Patricia Wettig]." And how did Santiago-Hudson make the journey from Lackawanna to Broadway and HBO? "My life has never been a road that's been paved; I've always been an underdog. Nothing has happened normal in my life. Even now, people say, 'Why are you writing that? Nobody wants to do it.' I say, 'It'll get done.' Nanny specifically refused to let me fail. She said, 'You are going to college. You are going to be one of the first people in this city — and definitely in this rooming house — to go to college."

Winning the Tony, he says, "was an extraordinary experience, especially coming from where I came from. I always thought when you proved yourself, other things followed. I had to go right back to the drawing board and say, let me make something happen next.

"People think I have it made; I don't. I'm looking for a job every week. There isn't a pile of scripts on my desk. No one has even asked me what I'd like to write next. It would be much easier for me in L.A., but I like the life in New York [as an Upper West Sider], and the people here, and where my kids go to school. As long as I can make a living here, it's where I'm going to be."

He and Wolfe "are good friends and collaborators. George is continually an inspiration to me. What I would love to do is to continue the story [of ‘Lackawanna Blues’]. This can go on. I'd like to do several episodes for HBO."

Since he was so close to Nanny, how does he rate S. Epatha Merkerson's portrayal of the role? "It's a beautiful performance. She's brilliant."

***

Nanny, a type of life force whom everybody knows or knows of, yet a unique individual, provides S. Epatha (E-PAY-tha) Merkerson an opportunity to display the width and wonder of her formidable range (only a fraction of which is used as Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order"). They should start now to polish the awards that Merkerson so richly deserves for her performance as a selfless survivor who stands up to anyone and stands out among everyone.

"The one thing that I appreciated about playing the character is that being 51 years old, I'm actually privy to the time she lived in. My folks migrated from the South; they came North for the work. I grew up in Detroit and Saginaw, Michigan — around that area. [She's the youngest of five.] There are all these great stories how we would be there for each other. Having lived among those people and during that time really sort of sweetened it, because there was a basic understanding of who this woman was, what she wanted to do, and how she went about it." Did she have role models? "The women in my family, and friends of my mother's. The character is very specific in what she has done, but there's a feeling that everyone will connect to.

"I had the opportunity to see the play with my husband [therapist Toussaint Jones], and as we were leaving, he said, 'Wow! There were a lot of people in that play.' The one through-line was Nanny, the one person [Santiago-Hudson] understood so clearly. Now, I have the opportunity to put a face on what you heard [in the play]. I had the view from his perspective, and how he had written her for the screenplay. Both of those informed how I played the character."

She believes that the cast is "fabulous," adding, "Everyone who was cast fit [their roles], although they may not have fit in my mind's eye. I was really upset when I had to come back to 'Law & Order,' because I missed working with Jeffrey Wright and Delroy Lindo. George [Wolfe] is the reason why you see so many incredible actors in this piece.

"I was so happy to do my first lead ['Lackawanna'] with George. I've known him since I've been in New York, and we had never worked together. I felt so safe working with him. Not only is he really very bright, but also he really cares about his actors. He comes to the table so full of information. You're able to work in an environment that feels really safe. I would jump at the opportunity to work with him again. When you speak to him, be sure to tell him that I gave him a big old compliment. [Laughs]."

Does she have a favorite scene in "Lackawanna Blues"? "I have a few, but my all-time favorite is the scene I do with Henry Simmons [the "NYPD Blue" actor, who plays an abusive husband]. I love any of the scenes with the boy [Marcus Carl Franklin]. He's such a bright young man, really a joy to work with, and very funny. He's one of those kids you just know has been here before. You just feel their souls are really old. His understanding of things was incredible, yet there would be moments when you could really see the little kid. Not having any kids — or wanting any — it's always fun when you work with one who's so great.

"It was a dream working with Lou Gossett, Jimmy Smits. . . ." Merkerson's also fond of "any scenes with Macy [Gray], Rosie [Perez], Adina [Porter]. It's one of those experiences that will go down in my book. Piano Lesson [the 1990 Broadway play] was that for me — working with August Wilson and [director] Lloyd Richards."

Merkerson's first Broadway appearance was in 1980's Tintypes, in which she understudied Lynne Thigpen and went on once. "I was so sad when [Thigpen] passed. We worked together a lot. She was such a lovely actress. Nanny is the kind of part that Lynne Thigpen would play." Upcoming for Merkerson is the Off-Broadway play Birdie Blue. "It's a three-character piece by Cheryl West. We're doing it in the spring at the Second Stage, when I'm on hiatus from 'Law & Order.'"

Since 1993, Merkerson has played the detectives' boss, Lt. Van Buren, in Dick Wolf's "Law & Order," now in its 15th season. The actress claims to "have had so many wonderful moments" in the role, and appreciates the job "in many, many, many ways." However, her first appearance on the series was in a first-season episode called "Mushrooms" (2/26/91). She played a mother who works nights and is not home when her 11-month-old is killed by a teen (hired by a drug dealer) who can't read, goes to the wrong address, and shoots through an apartment door.

Burned into my memory, I tell Merkerson, is her reaction when the detectives arrive at her cleaning job to tell her about the killing. She assumes they're coming to see her about her troublesome teenage son, and when it dawns on her that it's the infant, she cries, "No, not the baby!" Her scream echoes in the mind. Says Merkerson, "To this day, it's my all-time favorite 'Law & Order' episode. It was my introduction to the series. I never read a script for an episodic that was so well written [by Robert Palm]. I became a huge fan of the show. When they were looking to replace some of the men [on the drama], it was the coolest thing when I found out that Dick [Wolf] wanted to see me."

Her first TV role was as Reba, the Mail Lady, on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." The show recently came out on DVD. "My niece's son got so excited to see Aunt Epatha." Other series on which she's appeared are two short-lived 1992 entries, "Mann & Machine" and "Here and Now."

Merkerson refuses to reveal what the initial S. stands for in her name. "I say it's for Sweet. So many people have difficulty with Epatha, which is what I prefer to be called." The people who know won't divulge it. That includes my friend, show publicist Audrey Davis, who works for the Lippin Group, which handles the "Law & Order" brand. "Audrey and I are like a mutual-admiration society," states Merkerson.

If Ruben Santiago-Hudson gets his wish and the "Lackawanna Blues" stories continue, we'd see Rachel "Nanny" Crosby again. An enthusiastic S. Epatha Merkerson concludes, "We certainly may!" ***

George C. (for Costello) Wolfe speaks so rapidly that, compared to his speech pattern, "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" would sound like a dirge. It's a testament to the director that so many actors were willing to play cameos in his first film. "I told them, 'I'm going on my virgin encounter. Come on, people.'" The movie was made in March 2004 and edited in the fall. Wolfe is ecstatic that — prior to its Feb. 12 premiere on HBO — "Lackawanna Blues" will be screened at the Sundance Festival on Jan. 26. "Ruben and Epatha and I are flying out."

He was not aware, prior to someone recently telling him, that Ruben Santiago-Hudson's first Broadway show was Jelly's Last Jam. "It was mine, too. And Angels in America was my second." That did very well for HBO, I point out, directed by a fellow named Nichols. "Yeah, something like that. He worked in the park [the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Seagull], so it's all very incestuous. Same person came to see my play, Colored Museum nine thousand years ago and said, 'I want you to write a movie for me.' I never ended up doing it, but that's how we [Wolfe and Mike Nichols] became friends."

I mention that Epatha Merkerson paid him a compliment, and he says, "Oh, good. She worked at the [Public] Theater in Fucking A. She's astonishing, a brilliant, brilliant actress, a great artist."

The films of The Colored Museum and Fires in the Mirror (Anna Deavere Smith's one-person play) were directed by Wolfe, "but those are hybrids, filmed stage versions." He found the hours of film directing to be "barbaric. The most important thing was getting good shoes. But it was fun being in a world that I knew nothing about. The theatre, I feel, is a world I know too much about. It was fun to be inside this huge learning curve; it's a different way of collaborating."

Were there difficulties in transferring the work? "I don't think so. The material lends itself in that direction. In addition to being the story of a boy and his surrogate mother — and this house full of amazing, crazy people — the piece is set in the times of great transition. The movie takes place between 1955 and '66. We have the virtue of having that as a background."

Since Wolfe has turned a one-man play into a fully populated movie, might he do the same with a one-woman show that he directed at the Public (prior to its move to Broadway) — Elaine Stritch: At Liberty? Notes Wolfe, "Elaine's been done! I wasn't even asked [to direct the film version] by whoever those British people were who did it."

While speaking about Stritch, how was his experience with the perfectionist? "The thing about working with Elaine is that she's incredibly, incredibly, incredibly smart. Very frequently, a lot of directors talk down to actors. Elaine's a smart person; I'm a smart person. Therefore, our conversations existed within that realm.

"I'm drawn toward incredibly intense, talented people, and I don't intimidate easily. Intense, talented people have aspects of their personalities that are kind of extreme. Very frequently, I'm sure I probably have a little bit of an extreme personality as well. Ultimately, what you're arguing about, or obsessing about, is the material. You can't let ego or crap get in the way. Then the arguments aren't interesting, they're just silliness. Elaine and I had a very successful and uncomplicated collaboration. It was a great show!"

Of his stage work, is there one that gave him the most satisfaction? Wolfe responds, "Different things satisfy different things. The creation of Noise/Funk was one of the most joyful collaborations I've ever been involved with. Working on Part Two of Angels in America was fulfilling, because it was so hard, so exhausting. I think that the resulting work is thrilling! It was a huge obstacle course, and on the other side of it was this great work of art. It was very, very, very hard for everybody involved.

"Wild Party [the Michael John LaChiusa musical] is fulfilling, because it was against tremendous obstacles from almost every angle imaginable. The work changed and grew, and got better, so I'm proud of that. [There's a rumor that Wild Party might be Wolfe's second movie.] With Jelly, I was in a love affair with everyone in that entire cast. There was so much magic and hope in the creative process. It wasn't easy; it was a very difficult collaboration, because Gregory [Hines] and I clashed so much. But the running of the show was a source of tremendous pride. It was a very magical time for me.

"Caroline, or Change has been amazing in L.A. It's nice to see the show breathe outside of New York. It was very good here, but it's even better out there. At the end of a project, I end up with another piece of myself that didn't exist. Each show gives you a piece of yourself that was missing prior to working on that show. A piece of you dies, too. It's a complicated process."

Is Wolfe's association with the Public Theater finished now that he's stepping down as artistic director? "No, it's going to continue. I end my last full day of working here at the end of January. Eight days later, I come back to direct a play — Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes. Plus, I'll continue on the board."

Born in Frankfurt, Kentucky, Wolfe observes, "I've always been obsessed with theatre. I don't quite know why. At one point, a documentary was done on me. They went back to Kentucky and cousins of mine said, 'When [as children] everyone would play house, [George] would give people lines to say.' Instead of being a control freak, I created a craft. When I was 12, my mother came to NYU to do some advance-degree work. She brought me along. That's when I saw theatre. Living in Washington Square Park, one of the first things I saw was a mobile production of Joe Papp directing Hamlet, with Cleavon Little. I met the Public Theater then. I saw a production of West Side Story at Lincoln Center, and Hello, Dolly!, with Pearl Bailey. I had all these aspirations, and moving to New York gave me the love for those aspirations."

He attended Pomona College, directed theatre in Los Angeles, and also taught. "I was up for a writing job in Hollywood, and said, 'No, I don't want to do this.' I moved to New York and have been here ever since." Was there anything he had to cut from "Lackawanna Blues"? Wolfe states, "There was one scene, which was a huge, huge, huge regret. It wasn't for time. Lou Gossett's character dies. It was a breathtaking scene; his work was exquisite. But the scene did something to the movie rhythmically that wasn't correct." Might it turn up on the DVD? Says George C. Wolfe, "It may."

***

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in 2005.

From Left: Rosie Perez, S. Epatha Merkerson and Adina Porter in "Lackawanna Blues"
From Left: Rosie Perez, S. Epatha Merkerson and Adina Porter in "Lackawanna Blues" Photo by Bob Greene/HBO
Today’s Most Popular News: