Shelby Stone didn't relate to Rachel "Nanny" Crosby just because both were African Americans; it was mainly because the protagonist of HBO's upcoming film Lackawanna Blues meant family to her. When she saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson's off-Broadway, autobiographical one-man show about a woman who takes in a host of characters at her New York state boarding house, she was taken back. "It made me nostalgic for another time," says Stone, who teamed with Halle Berry, Berry's partner Vincent Cirrincione and Santiago-Hudson to executive produce the film version. "I really missed my grandparents. It made me remember this sense of community that once existed.
"My great uncles were all Pullman porters and branched out and had small businesses on the side," Stone continues. "So I felt the loss of that in our modern world -- not just as a black person, but that sense of community, and people helping each other.
Stone and others involved with the film will attend an invitation-only screening of Lackawanna Blues on Thursday at the Orpheum, a visit she hopes will lead to more visits to New Orleans. (The film premieres Feb. 15 on HBO.) But right now she's basking in the critical praise of the movie, which brought a packed house at a special screening at the Sundance Film Festival to its feet for a five-minute, standing ovation. Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave the film their own thumbs-up stamp of approval.
And with good reason; Lackawanna Blues brims with the same kind of unapologetic heart as Taylor Hackford's Ray, which among other things was alternately joyous and authentic in its presentation of the black middle class. Nanny, the film's heroine, is as much a force of nature running a boarding house as Ray Charles was in transforming American popular music. As was the case with many blacks in pre-segregation days, Nanny had her hands in a few different businesses, hosting fish fries on Friday nights among them. But it was her uncompromising embrace of the less fortunate -- alcoholics, mentally disturbed, ex-cons, jealous spouses, abused lovers, amputees, you name it -- that her home becomes a microcosm of the black community. "She would take fragments, and make them whole," recalls Junior, the film's narrator. (Hill Harper portrays Junior as an adult, while Marcus Carl Franklin portrays him as a child.)
The film marks the feature-film directing debut of George C. Wolfe, one of the most important figures in contemporary American theater whose credentials include the stage version of the film, the Tony Award-winning production of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, and Tony Kushner's recent work, Caroline, Or Change. While on the surface a one-man show about multiple characters would seem a daunting challenge for a cinematic adaptation, Stone believes Santiago-Hudson's script and Wolfe's familiarity with the story made it easy.
"When you see the play, it becomes so clear how to do it," says Stone, who sees producing film as boiling lots of spaghetti to see what sticks to the wall. "You could see the room, and you could see the house. You could see' the faces. Ruben paints such a clear picture of that world. These people talked to him (when he was a child), and said things, and loved each other, and cut each other. You got that in the play."
The supporting cast is a laundry list of familiar faces, most of whom provide what feel like cameos in portraying that many fragments that Nanny tried to make whole: Jimmy Smits as Ruben Sr., a Hispanic neighbor and Junior's well-meaning but ill-equipped father; Delroy Lindo as Mr. Luscious, a one-armed tenant; Robert Bradley as Otis McClanahan, a blind bluesman who serves as the story's Greek chorus with his lament of a painful life; and Jeffrey Wright as a closed-off tenant and suspected killer. Junior spends most of the film listening to their stories about how they wound up at Nanny's, and the rest of the time watching Nanny hold this fragmented family together. It's like juggling chainsaws; one moment she's staring down the boxer boyfriend of a battered white woman, the next she's trying to sweet-talk a psychotic Vietnam veteran down from a violent outburst.
But Merkerson, famous for her role as Lt. Anita Van Buren of TV's Law and Order but also a Tony Award-winning stage actress, finds the force inside Nanny's character to create a truly believable, humane and loving soul. "She took my breath away," Stone says of Merkerson's audition, which was aided by the fact that Wolfe had previously directed Merkerson in Suzan Lori-Parks' Obie Award winner F--king A. "Sometimes you see an actor bring all their skill sets to a character that is so truthful and so real, that makes you just go, Oh, OK!'"
Stone, who also produced the critically acclaimed 2001 TV film Boycott, has several projects that she hopes will keep her producing quality films. One is a project she's developing with local director Mari Kornhauser, a partnership she hopes will help local filmmakers enjoy some of the success brought by the rejuvenated film industry in the area. "I'm really excited about that," Stone says, who will give a lecture to film students at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Tulane University. "That's one piece of spaghetti that's floating very closely to the top."
- Nanny Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson) talks to her surrogate son Junior (Marcus Carl Franklin) in HBO's upcoming film Lackawanna Blues.