The following article appears in the February 14, 2005 issue of Jet Magazine
The following article appears in the February 2005 issue of Essence Magazine
Plays 'Lackawanna Blues'
By Jay Bobbin
It's one man's vision, but Halle Berry has played a big role in
bringing it to television.
The Oscar-winning actress's relationship with HBO -- for which she
made "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and earned numerous awards for it -- has
helped pave a path to the home screen for the off-Broadway show "Lackawanna
Blues." She is an executive producer of the project, which debuts on the
cable network Saturday, Feb. 12, after its premiere at this year's Sundance
Film Festival. Berry doesn't perform in the ensemble drama, but it isn't
lacking star power.
Longtime "Law & Order" regular S. Epatha Merkerson has the central part
of Nanny, the operator of a boardinghouse in 1960s Lackawanna, N.Y. She
has an impact on everyone who passes through her door, but arguably no
one more than Junior (Marcus Carl Franklin), a youngster to whom Nanny
becomes a surrogate parent.
Directed by Tony-winning stage veteran George C. Wolfe, the film boasts a
large cast that also includes Mos Def, Louis Gossett Jr., singer Macy Gray,
Hill Harper, Ernie Hudson, Delroy Lindo, Rosie Perez, Liev Schreiber, Jimmy
Smits and Jeffrey Wright. However, another co-star is the first
among equals: Ruben Santiago-Hudson not only wrote the piece,
he performed all the roles -- even Nanny -- when it was originally staged.
Berry has been a friend of Santiago-Hudson for years, prompting her to
help transfer the work from theater to film. "When I moved to New York,
he was the first man I met who was an actor," she recalls. "He told me
then that he was going to write a one-man show about his life and the
woman who essentially raised him. He finally got it up and going. I
went to see it at the Public Theater, and I was blown away ... not
just by the fact that he wrote it, but also that he performed every
character. It was just astonishing.
"Then I said to him, 'You know, you should shape this into a screenplay,
and it should be a movie.' He said, 'I'd love to do that.' He did, we
took it to HBO because they're like family to me, and they agreed to
be part of it as well." At one time, Berry also intended to act in it,
"but I was involved in so much other work, there wasn't really time
for me to fit into it in that capacity. I want to be able to produce
things that don't always offer an acting role for me. As I get older,
I'm starting to steer my career in that direction."
The theme of "Lackawanna Blues," is family, not necessarily blood
ties, and that resonates with Berry. "I left home when I was 17 or
18, so I've always had to make a family wherever I go," she says.
"People who have come in and out of my life at various stages have
played really big, important parts. Sometimes we're closer to those
people than we are to our blood relatives."
Playing someone who had an enormous impact on Santiago-Hudson, Merkerson
knew she had a big responsibility in making "Lackawanna Blues." However,
she says, "The interesting thing is that I never felt that weight. I can't
explain why, but I'm happy about it, because it allowed me the freedom to
relax into what I was doing. I always felt that once [Ruben] had written it
and had a director, he was sort of out of it. My responsibility was to
George, who had taken over the project."
Still, Merkerson doesn't negate the detail Santiago-Hudson gave her to
work with through his writing. "He had delineated this character very
clearly," the actress says, "as to who she was, what her lot in life
was, and how she managed the way she did. Unless he had something to
add to her, a little wart or something, I dealt with him as another
actor and not a screenwriter. All these characters meant so much to
him, it was already as clear as it could be."
Having portrayed New York police lieutenant Anita Van Buren on
NBC's "Law & Order" for more than a decade, Merkerson welcomes
opportunities to flex her acting muscles beyond the enduring crime
drama. "I've been able to do that onstage many times, but never on
film this way, and it was a lovely experience. I have found myself
in these really enviable positions in my career, and I don't know
what it is that I've done, but I appreciate whatever has allowed it to happen."
Berry works with Santiago-Hudson again when they star in "Their
Eyes Were Watching God," an "Oprah Winfrey Presents" movie ABC is
slated to air Sunday, March 6. Getting back into television pleases
Berry, who confirms, "I've found it a wonderful outlet for me. I hope
I keep finding ways to be a part of it creatively. It's nice
when something you care about can turn out to be advantageous
for you career-wise. It doesn't always work that way."
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, S. Epatha Merkerson and George C. Wolfe Chat About
By Michael Buckley
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.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
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
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,
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
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]
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
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
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."