All great blues songs have a timeless quality, so it’s entirely fitting that Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s solo show “Lackawanna Blues” still gleams like a newly minted coin some 20 years after it was first produced. In the Broadway production at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Santiago-Hudson reprises his vibrantly virtuosic performance, guaranteeing that this memoir of his youth in a boarding house retains all the lively humor and radiant feeling of the original production at the Public Theater.
Santiago-Hudson, who wrote the show and now directs the production, portrays more than a dozen characters, but central to the story is one, his “Nanny,” as he called her, the proprietor of the boarding house who took a maternal interest in Ruben when his own mother found herself overwhelmed by circumstances and unable to care for him. Nanny’s real name was Rachel Crosby. She moved to the upstate New York city of the title from the South and became a modestly successful businesswoman, running both boarding houses and an after-hours nightclub.
A woman of modesty and an easygoing warmth that belied a profound generosity — not just to young Ruben but to everyone who came to her for help or shelter — Nanny was also, it becomes clear by the end of this 90-minute show, a person of adamantine strength. When Santiago-Hudson inhabits the character, Nanny is invariably speaking in a soothing hush — a lullaby without the music, you might say — but even when she must confront bad behavior, she shows a force of will that easily cows the volatile and dangerous characters who cross her path.
Santiago-Hudson is now 64, and 20 years naturally take a toll, which may explain why a back problem led to the cancellation of a few performances and the postponement of the show’s opening. But this veteran actor and director’s skill and versatility are still remarkable to witness. In many solo shows depicting diverse people, the seams between them are drawn so sharply that you may never lose sight of the actor, as the performer leaps from one character to another as if playing a game of hopscotch. But while Santiago-Hudson occasionally steps out of character to provide narration in hindsight, when he is moving between his portrayals of the various men and women in Nanny’s orbit you are scarcely aware of the transitions, so smoothly does he slip from one story to another.
The characters in the show are mainly African Americans; the era is roughly the 1950s, a time when the Black experience was marked by relentless struggle, at least in Lackawanna. Most of the people who live in Nanny’s modest boarding houses are barely scraping a living. But even those who express their frustrations through belligerence or misbehavior are treated by Nanny with a kindly sympathy. Santiago-Hudson manages to imbue each with a full-blooded humanity that accentuates not their flaws or misdeeds but the emotional and psychological hardships that underlie them. It’s a delicate act of theatrical magic, and it provides the show with an overriding moral purpose that prevents it from feeling like a series of anecdotes strung together.
Among the more affecting scenes is one in which Ruben’s mother, clearly ashamed, gently dances around the question of Nanny helping take responsibility for her son, an almost-asked question that Nanny forestalls by making the offer practically before it is asked. From under Nanny’s maternal wing, Ruben gains a close view of his fellow inhabitants, mostly folks who are down on their luck but still fighting to stay afloat, borne aloft in no small part by the tacit or explicit support of Nanny.
Another emotional highlight, of a different kind, is the somber confrontation between Nanny and a young boarder who has become pregnant by Bill, Nanny’s buoyant, big-spirited boyfriend. Although she is telling the young woman she will have to go, but her touch is so empathetic and gentle that it almost feels like a benediction
Many of the stories that unfold before us — to the accompaniment of a subtly lovely score by Bill Sims Jr. (who performed in the original but has since died) ably played by Junior Mack — are of strife and disappointment. But humor is hardly absent, either in the events or in their telling.
Santiago-Hudson memorably describes Nanny and her beneficence as being like “the government if it really worked.” And while the depiction of an abused wife is grim, the story fans out into humor when Nanny escorts the woman, who is white, and her child to the woman’s Canadian home, where Nanny and Ruben sip tea in a stately parlor — a new experience for both of them that is drawn with wry humor. The tale of the rare tenant Nanny has to turn outdoors – a baby raccoon she adopts who grows a little too, well, raccoon-like — also provides nice comic seasoning.
The only laughs I found a bit discomforting were those at the expense of a Black character prone to mangling his language. The lines didn’t bother me 20 years ago at a small space at the Public Theater, but here they earn guffaws that feel a little unseemly from a largely white Broadway audience.
This prompts the question of whether “Lackawanna Blues” resonates differently today, since the country (or some of it, anyway) has become more enlightened about the persistence of racism in America. The answer is both no — as I said above, the show has an ageless quality — but also yes: Back then, one could admire the show’s nostalgic affection for its characters without fully engaging with the experiences it depicts. Today, as sweet-spirited as the show is, I was more struck by what always rumbled beneath that endearing layer, namely the pain and anguish the characters were combating, much of which, most of us must now recognize, was inflicted by a larger system.
“Lackawanna Blues” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Oct. 7, 2021.
Review Photo: Marc Franklin
Creative: Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Original Music by Bill Sims, Jr.; Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Scenic Design by Michael Carnahan; Costume Design by Karen Perry; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Darron L. West.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club.
Cast: Ruben Santiago-Hudson.