Steel mill town Lackawanna, New York 1950s – an end point of the great (Black) migration north. “There were jobs and money everywhere. Everybody had a new car and a conk.” (A chemical styling to relax men’s kinky hair utilizing lye, sometimes mixed with eggs and potato.) Taken in as a toddler (his mother was a drug addict), Ruben Santiago-Hudson was raised by Miss Rachel “Nanny” Crosby whose voice was soft as cotton. (The play is autobiographical.)
Nanny had saved every penny she made, eventually owning two rooming houses, a shuttle and a combination gambling den and fish fry, “the place to be.” The more genteel rooming house was run by her friend Lotte, while she oversaw and resided (with Ruben) in the other, a refuge for bad gamblers, drunks, drifters, abused women, the handicapped…also a menagerie including, in part, a feisty orphan raccoon, birds with broken wings, a one-eyed cat…thus, the moniker, Nanny.
The boy’s replacement mother is, however, no pushover. She breaks up several brutal fights, confronts a wife beater in a white Cadillac with quiet “bring it on,” confidence, and handles her own man, the much younger Bill, who impregnates a female boarder and leaves nine year-old Ruben to walk home barefoot in his swimming trunks after a fishing trip gone wrong. Nanny’s threats carry as much weight as one of her knife-wielding neighbors, yet kindness pervades.
The solo actor channels 23 colorful, mostly uneducated characters as if a southern Damon Runyon, some with a line or two of dialogue, others with full vignettes. Each has his or her accent, tone, cadence, octave and physical distinction. Speech emerges like music. Numb Finger Pete, Lemuel Taylor, Sweet Tooth Sam and Ol Po’ Carl- whose malaprops describe “The Entire State Building and Statue of Delivery” – are as vivid as Norma who rings the bell at 3 a.m., bloodied with her children in tow. Poignancy, violence and humor run tandem. Everything tracks back to Nanny.
Actual music is provided both by onstage guitarist Junior Mack who plays traditional jazz and blues with experiential ease, and Santiago-Hudson’s professional-level blues harmonica. Integration is seamless. Bill Sims Jr.’s original music sounds as if it belonged to the original cannon. Santiago-Hudson ambles, dances, and morphs sex and age. A tall man, he’s decidedly graceful and deeply rhythmic. When he looks out at or addresses the audience, warmth is palpable.
The story is rich, moving, amusing, and entertaining. Its author/actor/director a virtuoso on all fronts. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directed Jitney, The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars with skill, but to control movement and pacing without standing away is a different kind of accomplishment. This is an excellent piece and a master class for anyone planning solo work.
Michael Carnahan’s minimal, evocative set features stools, chairs, and a table framed by a seemingly beat-up wood proscenium. A door with iron gate, window, and light fixture with fan hang from above. The brick wall ‘backstop’ adds environmental atmosphere.
Jen Schriever’s lighting design subtly affects the way each scenario lands.
Photos by Marc J. Franklin
Lackawanna Blues originated at The Public Theater. Four years later, it became an HBO Special starring S. Epatha Merkerson (in place of Santiago-Hudson) as directed by George C. Wolfe.
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Written, Performed and Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Music performed by Junior Mack
Extended to December 7, 2021
The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street