Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 7, 2021
Lackawanna Blues. Written, performed, and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Music performed by Junior Mack. Scenic design by Michael Carnahan. Costume design by Karen Perry.
Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Bill Sims Jr.
Opening tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Lackawanna Blues marks the Broadway debut of Santiago-Hudson's play, a loving tribute to the woman he called "Nanny," who took him under her wing and unofficially reared him through his childhood from the late 1950s and into the 1960s.
Lackawanna Blues was first produced in 2001 at the Public Theater, but it still seems as fresh as a newly baked loaf of bread, thanks to the way it has been nurtured by its creator, performer, and director, all rolled into the triple threat that is Santiago-Hudson (quadruple threat, if you include some terrific segments of blues harmonica and singing). Unlike most other solo works, this rich and bountiful play seems right at home on Broadway, with every element fitting together for a comfortable if short stay; currently it is scheduled to run until the end of this month, at which point Santiago-Hudson will be busily occupied with directing the first Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew at the same theater.
Pre-show recorded music sets the tone. Some blues, of course, but there's a mood-setting mix of R&B, soul, gospel, a little Sam Cooke, a little Ray Charles. Then Mr. Santiago-Hudson whisks us off to the city of the title, the place where he grew up, located just south of Buffalo, New York. The setting is specific: a boarding house at 32 Wasson Street, nicely suggested by Michael Carnahan's set design: a front door here, a window there, some scattered chairs and a table. It is the world of Santiago-Hudson's childhood, where Rachel Crosby, or "Nanny" as the actor refers to her, presided over a motley assortment of boozers, gamblers, eccentrics, demented lost souls, and other down-and-outers. For all of them, Nanny, or Miss Rachel as the adults respectfully called her, was their anchor, the provider of shelter, food, guidance, and order. She was, as Santiago-Hudson tells it, "like the government if it really worked."
There are several possible ways to tell this saga. One way would be to treat it as a coming-of-age story, a straightforward narrative not unlike numerous other solo shows that have set up camp at theaters on and off Broadway and that, more often than not, are essentially confessionals that put the audience in the role of a close confidant or therapist.
Another approach would be to fill the stage with multiple actors portraying all of the eccentric characters who crossed young Ruben's life and became part of his surrogate family. Indeed, following the show's initial run two decades ago, Lackawanna Blues was adapted into an HBO film that featured a large cast and earned accolades and an Emmy for S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Nanny.
But the play's greatest strength, as it was initially conceived and as it is enacted now, lies in the ability of Santiago-Hudson to shape-shift into each of the 20-plus characters who made up the inner circle of the life he knew at the boarding house. Young Ruben is our chief witness and guide rather than the central character. This frees up the actor to focus on morphing through changes in body language and vocal expression into each of the others. Regardless of gender, race, or age, every one of them comes fully to life, collectively painting a rich portrait of the eccentric community that was the boy's childhood home. The anecdotes told by the likes of Ol' Po' Carl, Numb Finger Pete, Sweet Tooth Sam, Nanny, and all the rest are thoroughly engaging, often quite moving, and often quite funny. Who else do you know who can draw out an audience's laughter from the word "tea?"
Apart from Santiago-Hudson's outstanding performance, much praise needs to go to blues guitarist Junior Mack, who shares the stage with the actor and provides a musical backdrop throughout. It is a role he inherited from Bill Sims Jr., who wrote the music and was with Santiago-Hudson and the play from the outset. Sims passed away in 2019, and Lackawanna Blues is dedicated to his memory.
Maybe it's because we've all been away from our own extended families for so long, but Lackawanna Blues serves as a touchstone reminder of what we have been missing.