As the award-winning entertainer Ruben Santiago-Hudson stepped up on to the stage in the brand-new Lackawanna building that bears his name Sunday afternoon, he immediately began to fight back tears.
“I’m usually reserved and calm, but I might bust some tears today,” he said. “I guess I’ll do that right now.”
The 57-year-old actor, writer and director took a minute to compose himself and wipe away the tears with a handkerchief before he began a speech offering his deepest thanks to officials of Global Concepts Charter School for naming its new Ruben Santiago-Hudson Fine Arts Learning Center after him.
He said he got choked up because he couldn’t stop thinking about his boyhood days in Lackawanna, and all the friends, loved ones and especially, the adult role models who helped him become a success in Hollywood and on Broadway.
It means the world to him, Santiago-Hudson said, that while many schools throughout the nation are deleting or downgrading their drama, arts and music programs, the new center in his hometown will help high school students reach for their dreams.
“Our most valuable resource is our children,” said Santiago-Hudson. “When we nurture and feed their minds, their minds grow.”
Santiago-Hudson was the star attraction as the Lackawanna charter school unveiled the new building, formerly a Presbyterian church, which cost more than $1 million to reshape. The building is on Roland Avenue, a short walk from the Global Concepts High School on Johnson Street.
Starting out in children’s plays in Lackawanna’s old Friendship House, Santiago-Hudson has worked hard to make it in the entertainment world, and succeeded. In 1996, he won a Tony Award for his acting in the Broadway play “Seven Guitars.” He has acted on many popular TV shows, including “Castle,” “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue” and “The West Wing.” He’s appeared in films with Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and many other stars.
He has also written and directed many plays, including “Lackawanna Blues,” in which he played 20 different characters, many based on people he met as a youngster.
The new facility that bears his name features a small “black box” theater where actors, singers and dancers can work on their performances, as well as state-of-the-art video equipment, art studios and music studios.
Tracy McGee, the principal of Global Concepts High School, said the facility will be one of the best at any high school in Western New York. The school, which opened in 2002, has 245 students this year and McGee expects it to grow to 300 in the next school year.
“We’re going to come up with creative ways to use this building,” McGee said in an interview. “With a lot of schools downgrading their fine arts programs, I think students who are interested in the fine arts will be knocking on our doors to get in.”
Dawan Jones, chairman of the board of trustees for the charter school, praised Santiago-Hudson for putting his heart and soul into the new effort.
Santiago-Hudson went far beyond allowing school officials to name a building after him and agreeing to appear at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Jones said. The actor helped line up donations from companies and individuals, and also offered his input for the design of the arts training center.
The actor took a break from filming “Selma,” a Martin Luther King Jr. biography that is being filmed in Atlanta, to travel back to his hometown for Sunday’s ceremony. The film is being produced by Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey.
According to Jones, Santiago-Hudson told the producers that if he could not be allowed to break away for the Lackawanna ceremony, he would turn down the “Selma” role. Jones said the producers agreed to rearrange the actor’s schedule. He also spoke at the charter school’s commencement on Saturday.
A number of Santiago-Hudson’s old friends and family members turned out for Sunday’s festivities, and posed with him for photos. One of them was David Bowens, 54, an educator who still lives in Lackawanna. He is one of Santiago-Hudson’s three brothers.
Bowens said he was proud of his older brother and his commitment to the project.
He was asked if he always knew that his brother would become a Hollywood star someday.
“No, I didn’t, but Ruben always knew that he would be,” Bowens said with a laugh. “He was an entertainer from the time he was a little kid.”
Santiago-Hudson, who is married and has four children, said he plans to watch closely to make sure the fine arts center is properly utilized. He said he plans to get well-known artists, musicians and performers to travel to Lackawanna to encourage and teach students.
At the same time, Santiago-Hudson promised that he will not do anything in his personal life to embarrass those who named the center after him.
“You can’t find me on TMZ or the Enquirer,” he said. “You’ll find me at home with my family.”