About six months ago, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the creator of the play “Lackawanna Blues,” asked a friend to open a vacant theater for him.
“I just needed that — to sit in the seats, to walk on the stage,” Santiago-Hudson said in an interview this week. “For the past 50 or so years, I’ve had some time every year in the theater: to see a play, to be in a play, to direct a play, to write a play. All of a sudden that was taken away.”
On Tuesday, Santiago-Hudson got to return to theater in big way: “Lackawanna Blues” — which he wrote and directed, and in which he plays every part — began previews on Broadway, in a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street.
The play, which was first presented Off Broadway in 2001, and adapted into a television movie in 2005, is a reminiscence of Santiago-Hudson’s youth near Buffalo, and is centered on the character of Nanny, who ran a boardinghouse and imparted strength and morality to generations around her.
At a ribbon ceremony outside the theater on West 47th Street, where ticketholders and gawkers dodged rush-hour traffic, Representative Carolyn Maloney offered an unabashed New Yorker’s defense of Broadway. “What would New York be without Broadway?” she asked. “Seriously, it’s what makes the city feel so great. If we didn’t have Broadway we might as well be in Chicago or some other big city.”
S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Nanny in the television movie of “Lackawanna Blues” (and was a longtime fixture on “Law & Order”) was on hand for the preshow festivities.
“We’re baaaack!” she said, referring to Broadway.
A Broadway production of “Lackawanna Blues” by Manhattan Theater Club had been planned for a couple of years. Lynne Meadow, the company’s longtime artistic director, said in an interview she saw it as a celebration of “heroism,” which she said is even more apt now. The play was presented with music by Bill Sims Jr., as performed by the blues guitarist Junior Mack.
“This is a play about healing,” Santiago-Hudson said. “This is a play about community, about how we help each other, about what generosity means. This is what we need.”