Ruben Santiago-Hudson has few clear memories of life before Nanny.
His Nanny wasn't like the caregivers hired by affluent couples to look after the kids. This Nanny, otherwise known as Rachel Crosby, operated a couple of rooming houses and a taxi service in Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo. But she stepped in to take care of little Ruben when his parents couldn't, and she remained his surrogate mother until her death in 1989.
"With her, life was a carnival," he says. And actor-writer Santiago-Hudson has turned his memories of that carnival into "Lackawanna Blues," a stripped-down play for a solo actor and blues guitar accompanist. Santiago-Hudson performs with composer/guitarist Bill Sims Jr. -- who is perhaps better known as a star of "An American Love Story," a much-discussed PBS documentary about his interracial marriage, broadcast in 1999.
"Lackawanna" won an Obie Award when it premiered in New York in 2001. It opens at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday.
Santiago-Hudson, now 46, was living in Nanny's rooming house at the age of 2. His mother, Alean Hudson, worked nights and sometimes left him alone in their room. When Nanny heard about this, she took the boy under her wing.
She never became his legal guardian. His mother, who later became a heroin addict, was working two jobs and occasionally doing time in jail. His father, Ruben Santiago, a railway worker, lived a couple of doors away and saw his son frequently, but the younger Ruben preferred to live with Nanny. "I wouldn't trade Nanny for anyone, even my father," Santiago-Hudson says. Even his father, he says, often looked on Nanny as his own mother figure.
Nanny did favors for just about everyone in the neighborhood, Santiago-Hudson says. "I can't tell you how many times someone knocked on the door at 3 in the night and she said, 'Come on in, baby, you hungry? Tomorrow I'll help you get a job.' " Her dining room looked like a restaurant. "I'd bring eight kids home from the baseball game, and she'd feed 'em all."
African American communities tended to take care of their own in those mid-century years, Santiago-Hudson says. "I never heard of homeless people in Lackawanna."
Even though many of Nanny's boarders were ex-cons, young Ruben felt safe, he recalls. Because of Nanny's status, "they looked at me as a little prince." He went to school and became one of the few inhabitants of the neighborhood who could read. The adult boarders often would ask him to read a letter or look up a fact that would settle a bet. They called him "Doc."
Nanny herself had completed only the third grade, but she bought her young charge an encyclopedia, the better to settle all those bets.
When he was in the first grade, Ruben left to live with his mother a few miles away in Buffalo. But he continued spending his weekends at Nanny's. A few years later, when his mother disappeared for four days, he called Nanny, who fetched him back to her quarters. He lived with her until he went to college. Later he learned his mother was in jail during those four days -- she was beginning her descent into heroin addiction. Many years later she kicked her addiction, but she was killed last fall in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh.
When Ruben was in the seventh grade, Nanny recruited a godmother who lived nearby for him. Although he continued to live with Nanny, his godmother instilled a little more discipline in the boy with Nanny's blessing. But when he got into some typical teenage troubles -- "fighting, being a tough guy, carrying a cleaver or a knife" -- it was Nanny who set him straight. "She wouldn't have it, and I couldn't fathom the idea of hurting or disappointing her," he says.
Santiago-Hudson went to college at State University of New York in Binghamton and later obtained a master's of fine arts degree at Wayne State University in Michigan. He eventually became an actor and went on to win a Tony Award for August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" in 1996. But "I wouldn't be the actor I am today" without the years at Nanny's, he says. Besides providing a host of interesting characters, his upbringing gave him "the survival instincts I need as an actor."
He started writing about his youth when he was in college, penning a play called "The Good, the Bad and the Mad." He now recalls, however, that "I didn't want to deal with the truth back then" -- the truth "that I was raised with leftovers."
In the '90s, after Nanny's death, he began to think again about creating a play based on his earlier life. He started collaborating with Sims in 1999. "I'd listen to him do a character, and then I'd fiddle around with the guitar," Sims says. "I try to keep it simple and give each character a voice." Noting that Nanny had come from rural folk in Virginia, he also "tried to infuse that finger-picking style into the music. Those people can play bluegrass as well as the blues."
A $2,500 commission from the New York Shakespeare Festival, which operated the Public Theater, gave a boost to the project.
In "Lackawanna Blues," Santiago-Hudson plays two dozen characters from his days with Nanny. "He passes from one identity to the next so fluidly that you barely notice the flip of the switch," wrote critic Bruce Weber in the New York Times.
After he performed his play in New Haven, Conn., a white theatergoer approached him -- his eyes red from tears. The man said that he was raised by a black nanny reminiscent of Santiago-Hudson's Nanny and that he had been the only white kid in her neighborhood.
Santiago-Hudson has since written a short play that will be staged in New Jersey next fall and a longer play about a black man and a white woman who meet at a soup kitchen.
Married to cabaret singer Jeannie Brittan, he is the father of 7-year-old twins, Trey and Lily Rachel (who is named after both Nanny and Nanny's daughter who died of pneumonia at a young age), plus two grown sons. Living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Santiago-Hudson's twins are more sheltered and are provided with more formal enrichment, such as private lessons, than their father got at Nanny's. He wouldn't choose his childhood for them -- "no one would think it would turn out like it did."
However, he hopes that they absorb his experiences secondhand, via "Lackawanna Blues," which they have seen 20 times.
Apparently it's working. Young Trey told Santiago-Hudson that someday, "I might even write a play about you. But if it's not any good, I'll do 'Lackawanna Blues.' "
Where: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive
When: Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.
Contact: (800) 300-4345