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BILL VAUGHAN’S TASTY CLIPS: Ruben Santiago-Hudson raises spirits in ‘Lackawanna Blues’

Despite a string of successful roles on series like Showtime’s “Billions,” BET’s “The Quad,” ABC’s “Castle,” and in feature films like “Selma,” for actor/writer/director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the theater is sanctuary.   

“That’s where I’m the editor,” he admitted to Tasty Clips. “That’s where I get to be whole and I don’t have to play an attitude or a vision of what somebody’s thoughts of me are. I can just bare my soul.” 

The Tony Award winner evokes the spirits of his 1950s childhood in a small town on the banks of Lake Erie with his tour-de-force “Lackawanna Blues,” now running at the Mark Taper Forum through April 21.

In the piece, produced by Center Theatre Group, Santiago-Hudson takes on more than 20 colorful characters — from would-be philosophers and petty hustlers to lost souls and abandoned lovers — in a brilliant celebration of the eccentric boardinghouse he grew up in.

He is accompanied musically on stage with a performance by Grammy-winning blues guitarist, composer and actor Chris Thomas King.

If the title sounds familiar, it may be because of the 2005 HBO movie it spawned starring Terrence Howard, S. Epatha Merkerson and Louis Gossett Jr. 

“I thought the movie was incredible and I thought all the actors just did an extraordinary job,” Hudson shared. “But for me to do it — I know how these people smelled. I know the texture of their overcoats and the pace and rhythm of their language. I give it all gravitas and integrity.”

Santiago-Hudson’s play brings to life a community with the common need to not survive but to strive. His hometown, some 10 minutes outside of Buffalo, N.Y., was one of many decimated by the decline of the steel industry and the advent of integration.

He reminisced about seeing some of the top black stars of the era like Billy Eckstine, Muhammad Ali and Lionel Hampton walking through the streets as he shined shoes outside of the local bars.

In fact, Lackawanna was likely listed in The Green Book, a bible for black travelers now recognized for its ties to 2018’s Oscar winning Best Picture.

The admitted collector of black memorabilia had not seen the film, but it did strike him wrong that it would focus on the driver rather than the extraordinary Dr. Donald Shirley

“The distorted images of African-American people needs to be addressed,” Santiago-Hudson said. “I don’t know if they accomplished that, particularly when I hear brother hadn’t eaten fried chicken. Ain’t a white person in America who ain’t had fried chicken. And talking about he don’t know Aretha Franklin? Ain’t a white person that don’t know Aretha Franklin.  Who didn’t hear ‘Respect?’” 

“I’m not saying the film has to be a documentary, but we as artists, I know I do, have a responsibility and I will hold steadfast to that while I’m on this earth. If people put a microphone in my mouth or let me walk on a stage and shine some lights on me, I am going to rectify some of the BS, some of the lies about my people.”

Santiago-Hudson feels we, as a people, are not writing our truths because white Hollywood has said that’s not marketable.

“It’s up to us to protect us and I don’t think we’re doing a great job of it,” he said frankly, “and if money is your master, you’re going to always be a slave.” 

The prolific artist is next directing “Oo-Bla-Dee,” a play about a 1940s all-female jazz band written by Regina Taylor to premiere this June at Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theatre; will be acting opposite Phylicia Rashad in the upcoming OWN coming-of age dramatic series “David Makes Man,” from “Moonlight” writer Tarell Alvin McCraney; and has just finished writing the screenplay for HBO’s Denzel Washington-produced adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson.

He counts among his greatest accomplishments the trailblazing Ruben Santiago-Hudson Fine Arts Learning Center in Lackawanna; and his starring turn in the biopic “Forgotten Genius” about the unsung Dr. Percy Julian, who had over 200 patents and was responsible for basically affordable steroids from his work in Africa with the Calabar bean. 

Whether working in film, TV or in plays, Santiago-Hudson asserts “If I got three lines, I’m looking for the truth to instill to restore something that has been taken.”

CLIPPETTES: Old Skool Spring Jam with Tone Loc, Michel’le, Coolio, Melvin Riley (of Ready For The World) and more is on and popping at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center March 8; as the Brea Improv Comedy Club hosts the irrepressible Craig Robinson …

March 9 has Shaquille O’Neal opening restaurant/lounge Shaquille’s at L.A. Live with a red carpet following a battle of two of his former teams — the Lakers and the Celtics  

Also that evening, award-winning director/producer Anthony Hemingway and TV personality Karamo Brown are among the honorees at the Truth Awards, recognizing LGBTQ African Americans and their allies at the Taglyan Cultural Complex. Actress Angela Robinson of Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and Have Nots” hosts with a performance by Tweet …

In addition, 10-time Grammy-winning guitarist-vocalist George Benson is in concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts; while rising star Empress Of performs at the El Rey Theatre; and jazz bassist Tabari Lake debuts his first full-length work at a free concert at The World Stage in Leimert Park

TC ON TV: March 8 – “Juanita” (Netflix): Alfre Woodard stars as a single mother of grown children who embarks on self-awakening journey. “VH1 Trailblazers Honors” (VH1): #MeToo founder and activist Tarana Burke and director Ava DuVernay are among those being recognized during this special marking International Women’s Day with appearances by Anita Hill and Mindy Kaling, and performances by Rita Ora and Elle King.

March 9 – “Henry Louis Gates Jr. – Uncovering America” (PBS): Courtney B. Vance celebrates the life and work of the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and literary scholar with contributions from LL Cool J, Jodie Foster, Jelani Cobb and more. “Saturday Night Live” (NBC): Idris Elba, Khalid

March 10 – “Super Soul Sunday” (OWN): Michael B. Jordan  “Finding Justice” (BET): Dwayne Johnson is a producer of this docuseries telling the powerful stories of change agents in African-American communities. “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration For The Queen Of Soul” (CBS): Tyler Perry hosts Smokey Robinson, Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar, Common, Jennifer Hudson (who will play Ms. Franklin in a biopic), Patti LaBelle, BeBe Winans, H.E.R., Janelle Monáe, and SZA. “Unsung” (TV1): Adina Howard  “Uncensored” (TV1): Jermaine Dupri

March 11 – “The Passage” (Fox): The vampire drama starring hot kid actress Saniyya Sidney has a two-hour season finale tonight. “The Enemy Within” (NBC): Cassandra Freeman joins the show as a new member of the team led by Keaton (Morris Chestnut). 

March 13 – “Triple Frontier” (Netflix): An all-star cast of bad boys Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund play five former special forces operatives reunited to steal a drug lord’s fortune. “Ellen” (Syn): Lupita Nyong’o (who is being sought for the next James Bond film) and Chaka Khan. “Empire” (Fox): The hit series is back from hiatus with what may be the final Jussie Smollett episodes. “Drop The Mic” (TNT): Jason Mitchell vs. Adina Porter.

March 14 – “The Good Fight” (CBSAA): TV’s finest series returns for a 10-episode third season available on demand Thursdays exclusively for subscribers. Delroy Lindo, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski continue to shine; and animated “Schoolhouse Rock” type breaks, surprise casting and sly references make this the smartest show around.  “2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards” (Fox): Alicia Keys, John Legend, Ariana Grande and Halsey are among the performers in this two-hour special live from the Microsoft Theater. 

TASTY QUIP: “I have prayed so much, the Lord’s been tired of me. I feel that God is taking care of me right now. Because I’m all alone, and I still have sellout crowds everywhere I go. There’s an old saying: ‘If you wait, deliverance will come.’ And right now, it’s harvest time for me.” – MAVIS STAPLES to Rolling Stone

As featured in the Los Angeles Wave and Independent, Tasty Clips is one of the leading entertainment newspaper columns on the West Coast, serving nearly one million weekly readers. To reach Bill Vaughan, send email to tastyclips@yahoo.com or via Twitter @tastyclips.