The 'Blues' According to Ruben Santiago-Hudson
From the Mon broadcast center at KPCC. This is the frame, I'm John horn. And thanks for joining us during our spring membership drive. It can be hard to pinpoint an exact instance when your life changes course, but for writer director and actor Ruben Santiago Hudson it was easily when a kind hearted woman known as nanny took charge of his care as a young boy, it's a moment that Santiago Hudson has trained himself to recount from all angles as part of his autobiographical show Lackawanna blues. That's now at the Mark taper forum with music from guitar greats. Chris Thomas king and the late Bill SIMS junior Lackawanna blues uses song and pros to tell its story it showcases a cast of eccentric characters from the nineteen fifties. Upstate New York boarding house that was Santiago Hudson's childhood home. He plays all of the characters who came into his and nannies life as well as nanny herself Lackawanna blues premiered in two thousand. And and one it was also adapted in two thousand and five for a fully cast HBO movie when I sat down with Santiago Hudson. I asked him why he chose to revive lock one a blues. Eighteen years after its debut will in all honesty, I had put it to bed. You know? I thought it had seen its Glorion spilled. It's love throughout the country where we had been but Bill SIMS junior, my collaborator coaxed me into it. And prodded me and pushed me and threaten me. We have to do it. He said he said because the country really needs it people need to hear nanny say it's going to be okay. He thought we were in a very divisive separated angry country right now. And the only thing that kinda heal it was mother's love. And so he said, let's do like one blues. Again, Sadly, Mr Simms was not around to see the revival. Tell us about your partnership with him and what he met his collaborator will Bill thought. He would be around his doctor told him he'd be around but God at a different plan. So when Bill got ill about eight months ago, he was in steady decline in. Decided that we needed to find somebody else if he could make it a Bill could make it here. We wouldn't do all the shows we found incredible. Chris Thomas king to learn Bill stuff and also add a little of his, touch, you know, Bill. He was ethnomusicologist as the best way to put it in everything that he had recorded or composed for any play that I've done it was specific authentic in fit that plate. It would be from that era. Exactly what he wanted. And if he didn't play the instrument he would get the ideal musicians. And so his music was the foundation in the warm blanket of security that wrapped around everything that I've done last twenty years when I saw your plows talking to a friend of mine afterward, and I was talking about nanny who is Rachel Crosby who is somebody who cared for you. And a lot of other people. And I said that to me nanny was evidence of God in the world that she was divine in terms of her kindness that, you know, there are very few people who are like her who have that kind of heart that kind of kindness and are willing to make a change. In the world. When did you first start realizing that there was something really divine about nanny, I was kinda young because I kept seeing her say, yes, the people who would shake my head. No in since I was a little buddy. She would like Lincoln me like Mr. Taylor in the mental hospital when she went to sign him out because he wanted to come out when he was talking to her and I was looking at her. This is absolute truth Mahan. I shook my head. No. 'cause he's kinda strange at one league in his tongue kept moving and kind of scared me a little bit. So he was saying I'm looking for chance she kind of looked over at me, and I'll should my no when she winked in next thing, you know, we're going to an office. She was signing him out, and he grabbed her suitcase in we were in the car going home. And right, Dan. I started thinking why why would you do that? Why would you give him a chance? I I've known people who have stolen from her. And then they come to borrow money from her later, and she would loan it to him in. They would probably never pay it back and I'd get angry, and she would have to sit me down. This is when I was a little older when I was seventeen and. I out say I'm gonna get your money in any in any say, I don't need you to protect me it s between me and them and God. And you know, and so it was like those rare people have understanding with something bigger than you. And me that you, and I will never understand, and we're just thankful and grateful that they exist. I wanna play a couple of clips one is from the H B O movie version of quantum blues and this scene nannies played by as path Emerson confronts Jesse who's an exceptionally large domestic abuser whose wife and children have sought shelter with nanny and Jesse is played by Henry Simmons. This. For my family. Sit down boy you hungry on new Saddam's, Rachel. Still lost. Fresh pot neck moans backhands. Wherever you go have to go through me to get to. Now gone knock me down. Go. If that's the only way, you know, how to do things knock nanna down 'cause I can handle it. I got no beef with Rachel. What all do spec. You all up in between me know, what up between is right and wrong. Now, I'm gonna play a clip from your show in which you're playing these characters and it's nanny in that same scene with Jesse picking up right where that last clip left on and wrong. Now when that child come here in the middle of the night, half dressed would her babies intoe blood all over her mouth. I was there for her. And I ain't gonna turn back now. So if you're going to give me a dose of what you give her bring it on. Go somewhere and sit down cozy few ever put your hands on that child again, baby. We go dance. There's so much to talk about the difference of you doing those characters versus listening to other actors when you hear the difference. How does it strike you? And what changes in the storytelling when you're playing everybody in the in the play. It's interesting because what it pay in Henry did was so close to in. They didn't know this. I was there and saw that I'm imitating what I saw in them who had not seen it knew that. And they had those rhythms in that feeling in that depth. That's amazing. That gave me chills to hear. I said, wow, they doing it. We almost doing it the same way, you know. It's just me playing all the characters opposed to them. But it makes more even clear that this is universal abuse protectors and people that protect people from abuse willing to stand in the storm. It's universal. It's not only nanny it's in communities all over this country in Korea in Israel in Japan in in in Ghana there. Are people who are willing to stand in the middle of the storm in say, I'm willing to sacrifice for you. 'cause you Uman in human in Nestle, we do, and that's what this country needs right now. It really gives me chills. And it makes me realize that this is important is set you aside from entertainment, it becomes about humanity as an actor when you're playing so many different characters. How do you find it? Easiest to go from one person to the next is it a gesture wave speak and way of holding your body. How do you figure that out for yourself as you're performing? I don't do much figuring essense memory since memory of seeing what they walked like how they smelled how they talk the rhythms the posture, and I have to be honest about how different people were. I know he walked bent over. I know, you know, she walked with a hand on a hip all the time the reality of the people, I can't think on my feet. I can't stop thinking. I just got to go through the story in if I really thought about it probably couldn't do it. Coming up on the frame more with Ruben, Santiago Hudson and his one man show. Lock wanna blues? Welcome back to the frame. I'm John horn. We're talking today with Ruben Santiago Hudson, the writer director and performer of the solo autobiographical play Lackawanna blues. It's now at the Mark taper forum. Luck wanna blues is not a musical in the traditional sense, but Santiago Hudson shares the stage with Qatar is Chris Thomas king and together. They intertwine music song and pros to build a sense of place and story will pick up with Santiago Hudson and a clip from Lackawanna blues where a spoken monologue. Turns into a blue song. There's a chain. In the weather. In the chain. Oh in the deep Lucy. There's a change in my be. Going to be a change in me. When asked about working with Bill SIMS junior about how you figured out how text and music would come together. And why the blues it's called Lackawanna blues were so important as a musical framework. We're working with Bill villages come in to the room with two guitars and sit in the corner. It was only he and I am the room. And he would just listen to my stories his stories were very similar minds from Marion Ohio by where Georgia so many characters. I talked about even though he didn't even rooming house lifting his community. You know, he talked about two guys name spaghetti and meatballs. And one guy was short and fat and other guy was tones Guinea, and they were gamblers, you know, so we would have these stories so Bill would just sit there and woodshed on guitar. And when he thought it was right? He would say do that. Again, man. Do tell me the story in and then he would find his way in we look at each other. Shrug and say, that's it. Okay. Let's go to something else. And he was retained in keep it. He was a monster musician. He practiced all day and all night anytime you call him at seven o'clock in the morning because we both got a Burley. What's up brother be just working my art his hands would be bruised in calloused? But that that was Bill in in. I can't tell you how much I miss him. You're onstage with a very talented musician. Chris Thomas king, and he's there with you the entire time. Any normally scores the show, but he helps us the mood and scene changes with you. I wanna play a clip from like one blues where king guitar accompany is one of your monologues. Nineteen fifty six Anke played the dodgers in the World Series Yankees. One. Jackie robinson. A lot of people say I sound like Jack Robinson. Always admired him because. Sounded. American. I spent seventeen years in jail learning how to sound American. That's why South American when you're talking to an American all American like a fifty six Chevy when ask a little bit about that monologue. And about the way that you and Chris worked together with Chris is extraordinarily he's extrordinary. He is the spirit of Bill SIMS junior on stage in I was fortunate to through a lot of digging. I'm talking about two different storage units. Clean. My office out. Totally almost went mad searching found a cassette of the original show. Not great audio, but you can hear music and Chris listen to it in new, okay? This dance that they're doing any picked it up. But then he also adds his own thing his own Louisiana touch. It's extrordinary I could feel Bill through Chris in real wonderful wonderful way. And it's just a glorious thing that to be on stage with him. There's a lot of moments in the play where the audience. Is in on something that certain people understand there's a dance that you reference. There's a way of treating hair that you reference when you're listening to the audience react to the show. How has that reaction changed over the years because there are certain lines that really land? I think in a different way today than they might have landed eighteen years ago. Well, we talking about a celebration of culture when I talk about doing a certain day when I talk about treating hair certain way, when I talk about certain food what I'm trying to do what I am doing is allowing you a foreigner to experience what is glorious and beautiful in my community. What is sacred in my community in the great part about it is that the great majority of audience is leaning in for it. They're curious they want to know. That's what brings us together. Ignorance is what rips apart curiosity brings us together because we lean into the next person. We don't know a lot of my audience has not come to the taper ever, and they respond to it because it's their community. And they get delighted they're delighted that. Other people accept it. The other thing that you do with the audience is I think you get them feeling one thing. And then you throw a curveball that there is a very powerful monologue in the show about somebody describing a crime he's committed and it moves between song and pros, and it starts kind of comedic Lii. And then it becomes very dark and very powerful and audience. I think including myself is is really kind of reacting in real time to how this story's unfolding is that important to you that you're catching people a little bit off guard and making sure that they remember that real things are happening at some of those real things are really terrible kitchen them a lot of guard. It's called that Kadhamy the greatest writers in the world. Shakespeare, August Wilson Strindberg Brecht Beckett. That kinda me how do I get you on that cliff in you think you're gonna fall over in a pull you back down or push you off that cliff? But I gotta get you to the cliff. I gotta loosen. Yup. I gotta get you. You know, nice and flexible, so then I can bend June to the positions. I wanna Benji in two in. Make your valuable soi make you drop your defenses and then lay UN hit. Gotcha. Then you can hear people scared to believe they think all this little fellow. You know, he's talking that where he's funny. And then all of a sudden, they realize he had a story. But what is the end of it? Nanny understood me, no matter. What I did. She didn't make judgement. So when I play these characters I play them the same way. I don't judge them a reveal them nanny gave you a life. And she gave you stories that you can share. Did she make you an artist you think nanny was say to me, whatever you wanna do you going to be very good at it? You could be great. But you can't have step. If you wanna be a garbage man, it'd be the best if you wanna be a teacher be the best teacher, and I said well ninety I think I'm gonna be an actor. She said you're going to be the best, but don't have step. Don't almost do it. And I said, okay, mama. I won't let you down in even in hardest times because it has not always been easy in still not easy. I'm still fighting. I'm still auditioning still struggling I get no eighty ninety percent of times. What I hear is. No. You still here? Nanny say no have steps. Oh, yeah. When I go into stage every night, I call out a lot of names. It's a ritual in I say, y'all come on in this a lot of names some of those names from nanny. And August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, my father a lean Bill SIMS as the come on. 'cause I cannot go out here by myself. I will forget those lines. I'll forget those sounds. I'll be intimidated. It's just natural immune. But with them with me, I'm the biggest man in the world when I walked down like, whatever, I do is going to be golden because I got these people ain't Ruben his people, you know, Ruben Santiago Hudson is the writer director and performer of lock wanna blues is at the Mark taper forum through April twenty first Ruben, thanks so much for coming in. This was great now pre sheet you so much. And that is the frame for today. Thanks for listening both on the radio and on demand. And thank you so much for supporting KPCC. I'm John horn. We'll see you here tomorrow.