Lackawana Blues Review: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Brings His Play to Broadway

Here’s a treat: a restorative evening of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s loving recollections of growing up in an upstate New York boarding house run by a life force known as Nanny.

When Nanny made her appearance, I wanted to climb up on stage and crawl into her lap. Yes, recent times have indeed been that hard, and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of “Lackawanna Blues,” Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s nostalgic 2001 memoir about the unconditional love of a childless older woman for the residents of her modest boarding house, is just the kind of life-affirming show we could all use right now.

Aside from a barber shop in Harlem or a barroom on the Bowery, an old boarding house in a snowbound city in upstate New York is a great place to run into colorful characters like the ones who figure in this one-man show. Michael Carnahan (set), Jen Schriever (lighting), and the one-and-only Darron L West (sound) dress the almost empty stage by drenching it in shades of blue and enveloping it in the down-low music of Bill Sims, Jr., as played by New York Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Junior Mack.

Santiago-Hudson initially takes the stage as himself, an omniscient narrator who seems to be comforting his present-day self by recalling a lonely boyhood blessed by the protective care of a saintly woman known as Nanny. As proprietress of a boarding house that seems to cater to misfits and down-and-outers, this maternal figure stands tall, talks truth, and envelops her little band of losers in the warming embrace of honest affection and genuine respect.

“She treat everybody like they people” is how one of her boarders perfectly describes Nanny’s righteous character. It’s no wonder that Santiago-Hudson keeps returning to her, in between his frequent forays into the battered lives and hurting souls of her various hard-luck lodgers. More than anything, this self-made matriarch nurtures her ersatz family by giving each member his proper due — a warm place to rest, a safe place to recover, or just a place at the table to find nourishment in her Everything Soup. “Nanny was like the government,” we are told, “if it really worked.”

The year was 1956, when “white folks were all jumping on Nat King Cole.” Here in Lackawanna, some of the lodgers are depicted in a comic light, like Po’ Ol’ Carl, who mangles the English language with the verbal enthusiasm of a toddler. “You got the roaches of the liver,” he informs a hard-drinking friend. “Beauty is in the behind of the beholder” is another choice pensée.

Other characters are more physical, like Numb Finger Pete and Lemuel Taylor, who get into a brawl described as “the one-legged fight of the century.” And some, to be sure, are so tragic they bring tears to Nanny’s eyes.

Anyone who caught the TV film adaptation that was stuffed with great character actors and aired on HBO some years back might not even know that Santiago-Hudson’s play began as a piece for a solo voice. Here, the solo author-narrator is revealed as a versatile master of multiple voices, effortlessly slipping into the skins of two dozen characters who pass through Nanny’s place. Not all of them are memorable, and some are downright bad actors. But each of them is recognizably – and achingly — human.

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