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Ruben Santiago-Hudson believes in the restorative power of live theatre — and is sharing his story with Broadway audiences now that the Great White Way's doors have officially reopened.
The 64-year-old actor is bringing his autobiographical, one-man play Lackawanna Blues back to the tristate area 20 years since its Off-Broadway premiere and subsequent production at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, which followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
After New York City and the nation were left devastated, Santiago-Hudson tells PEOPLE, "there was this cry for some moment of peace, some moment of security, some moment of connection to something greater than us that we can be comforted by — and there's nothing more comforting in my life than Nanny Rachel Crosby."
Lackawanna Blues is inspired by the Tony Award winner's early years, during which he was taken under the wing of Nanny Crosby, the matriarch of a neighborhood boarding house in Lackawanna, New York.
Opening Sept. 28 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Santiago-Hudson recreates his experiences with Nanny and the colorful characters she housed — individuals Santiago-Hudson describes as "salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people, people with frailties and mental problems, drug problems" — and tells of the everlasting impact Nanny Crosby had on them all.
The 2001 play was later adapted into a 2005 HBO film, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring S. Epatha Merkerson as Nanny Crosby alongside Terrence Howard, Macy Gray, the late Michael K. Williams and Santiago-Hudson himself.
Onstage, Santiago-Hudson plays all of the roles. "Wait till you see the person who knew her personally do the play. The person who she woke up in the morning and said, 'Baby, it's time to go to school,' " Santiago-Hudson says. "Wait till you see the person who she took to nursery school tell this story, and the testimonies of all the people that she helped, that I can tell in 84 minutes."
"I wanted them to myself," Santiago-Hudson insists, adding that he envisioned his work as a solo show out of selfishness. "I felt that I had to be the one to do it."
Nanny and his friends at the boarding house, he says, were the ones who propelled him forward — the ones who didn't allow him to give up on himself. And through his play, Santiago-Hudson hopes to inspire others the way Nanny inspired him, especially amid another tumultuous time in our nation's history.
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While previously performing the play in Seattle, Santiago-Hudson recalls an audience member who didn't believe this "heart-warming" story was in fact based on a woman as selfless as Nanny Crosby.
In response, the actor recalls saying, "I'm torn a little bit by that comment because I feel for you that you've never seen this kind of love, but I'm delighted that I could share because I had an overabundance of it. So this is my sacrifice, this is my offer to you."
Santiago-Hudson hopes the late Nanny Crosby would be proud of the man he's become. "Every waking moment I have, Nanny is with me," he says. "Before I walk [onstage] every day, I call [upon] Nanny first … When life was telling me, 'Fail, boy, fail,' these people just hover around me, and they won't let me fail. So I have an obligation to those people and to Nanny. What I wanted to do was not disappoint her, so I just hope I'm worthy of that."
Lackawanna Blues is currently playing through Oct. 31 at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.