Exposed Roots

Illustration by Christopher SlebodaPhoto: Courtesy of Bob Greene/HBO

It is easy, maybe even obligatory, to be cynical about Black History Month on television—a slush pile and a burial mound for minority programming that lets the small screen pretend to care about black America every February, after which nobody has to.

Nevertheless, at least there is a guilty commitment to produce something, a decent minimum once a year, and show it somewhere, between the Super Bowl and spring training. What this means, surprisingly often, is accidental quality, or incidental excellence, or artful ambush. It is as if Grigory Potemkin, seeking to deceive his czarina Catherine by dressing up a Ukrainian dump to look like back-lot Hollywood, had somehow materialized Brigadoon instead.

Thus, Lackawanna Blues: a love letter, a valediction, and a joyful excess.

Those who saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical play five years ago at the Public Theater will remember the playwright alone onstage, channeling all twenty speaking parts, a one-man boarding house. His director then is also his director now, but George C. Wolfe has emancipated all those speaking parts. While you may notice Santiago-Hudson in almost every eating, drinking, and dancing crowd scene, he is merely one of “Nanny” Crosby’s many wounded roomers—those men and women who arrived in the fifties at 32 Wasson Avenue with parts of their bodies missing and pieces of their minds, too—who sought sanctuary and found healing.

S. Epatha Merkerson plays Earth Mother Nanny as if her time off from Law & Order were a jail break. Every pride and passion she has had to swallow in the precinct house is allowed here to run rampant. Not only will her powers of endurance and renewal, her fierce loyalty, and her raucous humor save little Ruben (Marcus Carl Franklin) from his own negligent parents (Carmen Ejogo, Jimmy Smits), but she rescues as well a one-legged Louis Gossett Jr.; a lazy, crazy, razor-wielding Macy Gray; convicted killer Jeffrey Wright; and the noisy likes of Rosie Perez, Delroy Lindo, Charlayne Woodard, and Mos Def—not to forget her man-child husband (Terrence Howard), or the battered white girl (Julie Benz) she ferries to Canada, or the social workers (Kathleen Chalfant, Liev Schreiber) she beats off with a stick, or the lounge lizard (Ernie Hudson) she won’t permit to pounce.

Each casualty in Nanny’s ward has a cautionary tale to tell, to which, invariably, there will be moody blues attached, a series of music videos deserving their own cable channel, but also a graduate-school curriculum for Ruben (played as an adult by Hill Harper). You wouldn’t know that Lackawanna Blues is George C. Wolfe’s first feature film. Even in deep-pore close-ups, it’s not stagey in the slightest; it’s been crosscut to a Godfather-ly fare-thee-well, and there are some Orson Welles palm prints all over a snow-globe shot. Imagine August Wilson feeling good about the world. Okay, maybe not. Think, rather, of those Toni Morrison novels in which there was something glorious to be said for black communities before integration—for butter cakes, fireflies, baby ghosts, graveyard loves, and maple-syrup men with long-distance eyes.

Morrison’s novels also come to mind when watching Slavery and the Making of America—one in particular. Just as her Beloved was the missing witness in American literature, the book that filled the hole in our imagination of ourselves between, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and William Faulkner, so Slavery expands on Roots and sets the stage for Eyes on the Prize. This two-evening, four-hour account of the “peculiar institution” from 1619 to 1865, and heretofore unsung movements of resistance before and after the Civil War, is all the more wrenching for being so meticulous. Morgan Freeman talks to us, James Oliver Horton thinks for us, such splendid historians as Nell Irvin Painter and Ira Berlin tell us everything they know, and as we look at the three-spoke slave collars and the iron mouth-bits, we understand that servitude was the seed money for our industrial prosperity and our philosophical exceptionalism—that African blood and African bones were our surplus value.

Lackawanna Blues
February 12, 8 P.M.

Slavery and The Making of America
February 9 and 16, 9 P.M.

Exposed Roots