At a Friday night fish fry in a tawdry boardinghouse on the black side of Lackawanna, N.Y., in 1956, quick cuts of the camera bleed into each other: dancing, eating, dice-rolling, jealousy, stabbing, furtive sex and childbirth, each with a distinctive scream or groan. Bam! A woman slashes a rival with a blade. Bam! Another woman cuts an umbilical cord with another blade. Underneath the chaos, a recording of Joe Turner's rollicking "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" shakes the floor.
This is the first day of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's life. His 16-year-old mother is following the commands of the boardinghouse owner, an older, powerful woman everybody calls Nanny. Soon Nanny and her emotionally damaged boarders will become Ruben's surrogate parents. Ruben will go to college, become an actor, gain notice for a one-man off-Broadway play about Nanny and the boardinghouse and then turn his story into an HBO movie, "Lackawanna Blues." All this coursed through Santiago-Hudson a couple weeks ago when "Lackawanna Blues" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. As he watched his story with an audience for the first time, "It hit me right then, that this really happened -- this life people thought was destined for doom.... I just felt Nanny's spirit all over the place."
The movie, which airs Saturday on HBO, is Santiago-Hudson's valentine to Nanny, played with fervor by S. Epatha Merkerson, best known for her role as a police lieutenant on TV's "Law and Order." It is also an unsparing portrayal of the last years of legally segregated America, a contradictory time in which African Americans were striving for integration while still dependent on a network of black-owned businesses and social institutions. Nanny -- Rachel Crosby, who died at 82 in 1990 -- offered rooms and a sympathetic shoulder to tenants broken by the corrosive power of discrimination. She was, Santiago-Hudson's narration says, "like the government -- if the government worked."
"Lackawanna Blues" is a nonstop juxtaposition of joy and loss, in which pleasure is snatched with the knowledge that tragedy is around the corner. A vibrant nightclub celebration of '40s jump-blues music is suddenly interrupted when a feuding couple trade razor slashes. In other moments, pain is piled atop pain: When Nanny convinces Ruben's wandering mother to let her raise the boy, the camera cuts back and forth between the women's negotiations and a blind, blues-playing boarder howling a classic line from the porch: "My mother went off and left me." "It ain't right you invade my privacy," the mother says.
"Well, I'll invade Russia when a baby is concerned," Nanny answers.
The boarders -- drifters, criminals, alcoholics, crippled veterans -- lovingly school young Ruben. They matter-of-factly tell him the stories of their lives: how a fight with a white boy over a woman's honor cost a black boy his arm; how being spurned by a woman infuriated a man so strongly that he killed her and her lover. They gather around Nanny when she faces down a wife beater who demands Nanny stop sheltering his family.
The intimacy of these scenes can be traced to noted stage director George C. Wolfe, who made his film debut in "Lackawanna Blues." "What I wanted to create visually is the sense the viewer is in the room. You are in the material," said Wolfe, who directed Santiago-Hudson in theater performances that included the stage version of "Lackawanna Blues" in 2001.
Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson met 18 years ago in the office of an agent they shared. Santiago-Hudson, as he did with almost everyone, eventually started telling Wolfe stories about the characters in the boardinghouse. After a dozen years, "I got driven to have somebody write it as a play," Santiago-Hudson said. He met with Wolfe, who had become the producer of New York's the Public Theater, who hooked him up with dramaturge John Dias, who formatted the stories for the stage.
The play -- featuring Santiago-Hudson as all the characters -- ran 10 weeks and toured several U.S. cities. Over and over, Santiago-Hudson said, audience members would tell him about someone in their families who had stayed at Nanny's.
Another person who shared an agent with Santiago-Hudson in his early days was Halle Berry. She used her clout to get the play produced as a film by HBO, serving as an executive producer.
Because so many cast members lived in Los Angeles, the producers decided to film here, and went in search of a suitable house. After a long, fruitless day of driving, Wolfe said, he spotted a home on West Adams Boulevard, a neighborhood west of downtown noted for its large Victorian and Craftsman homes. "I just started screaming, 'That's the house!' " Wolfe said. The house was a rambling collection of styles "as eclectic, complicated and damaged as any of the characters who lived there," said another executive producer, Shelby Stone.