Ruben Santiago-Hudson Gives A Tour De Force In His Play Lackawanna Blues
Also see Richard's review of Puppetry of the Penis
American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting Tony Award winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s own play, Lackawanna Blues, at the Geary Theatre. This one person show ran over three months at the Public Theatre in New York in the 2001 season and received rave reviews from the New York press. During the 85 minute no intermission period, Hudson portrays 20 larger than life characters. He shifts impeccably from character to character, sometimes within a single conversation.
Mr. Hudson walks onto an almost empty stage bathed in a pool of lovely blue light. This color is apropos to the place where these stories are related. Sitting on the stage also is the respected “Master of the Blues,” Bill Sims Jr., who plays some very deep felt blues on his guitar.
Ruben tells of his youth in '50s Lackawanna, New York. During those post war years, the city with its port facilities and steel mills was a mecca for African Americans coming from the south to find better paying jobs. Ruben’s mother was an addict, so Nanny, his surrogated mother, raised him. Nanny owned a boarding house at 32 Wasson Ave., and she was an earth mother and a drill sergeant to all of her borders. There are petty hustlers, lost souls, street smart philosophers and abandoned lovers living at the house. The actor tells the wonderful stories about these characters, even taking over the role of Nanny herself. The cascading rhythms of these characters are as rich and vibrant as the blues. Most of the boarders are reddened by alcohol, bad romances and poverty, giving them the right to sing the blues.
Many of Ruben's characters are outstanding, particularly the old ex-baseball player who played in the Negro League. This character is full of malapropisms. He relates how he once visited New York City and saw the “Statue Delivery” and went to the top of the “Entire State Building,” as he says, “the biggest building in the world for the entire state.” There are many varied characters in the house, such as the man who lost his arm when he was on the run from killing a white man. He relates how a snake bit his arm while running through a swamp and how he a doctor says that gangrene has set in and the arm must be removed. It’s either his arm or his life.
Ruben is particularly good when he portrays Nanny standing up to a man who had been beating his wife and children. This is superior acting since he takes the part of Nanny and the wife beater in a single conversation. Ruben also plays a mean harmonica with Bill Sims throughout the performance.
The last scene, in which Nanny is on her death bed, is heartbreaking. The actor eulogizes Nanny by saying “she always gives us hope and a hot meal.”
Lackawanna Blues runs through December 1 at the Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sfbay.org.