By Donna Herman
Ruben Santiago-Hudson should be a household name on a par with Whoopi Goldberg and Meryl Streep for his ability to morph into incredibly well-defined, complete characters at the drop of a hat. A feat he displays to stunning effect in his autobiographical play “Lackawanna Blues” now being presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater.
In this one-man show he portrays over 20 different characters drawn from his childhood as he introduces us to his hometown, Lackawanna, NY, and the woman who raised him, Rachel Crosby. Better known to all as Nanny or Mother, she ran two boarding houses, a restaurant, a three-car shuttle service and an occasional nightclub. She was the beating heart of her community, providing food, clothing and shelter to anyone who needed help. “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.”
But more than Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s acting skills are on display in “Lackawanna Blues.” He is also the playwright and adapted his own Obie winning 2001 play into the critically acclaimed 2005 HBO film which garnered him alone 11 award nominations for writing. The genius of Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s writing in “Lackawanna Blues” lies in his ability to capture the humanity and pain of his characters – no matter how reprobate they may seem to the rest of the world. From the most minor of characters to the most central, he brings to life rounded human beings whom it is impossible not to respect and empathize with.
Mr. Ruben-Santiago takes the fragmented stories of these various characters set in the 1956 city of Lackawanna, NY on Lake Erie a few miles south of Buffalo, NY and, with a little help from the device of a narrator, weaves them into the not oft told tale of a prosperous and bustling black community. Despite the prevailing racial, social justice, and poverty issues that faced most black communities of the era. And, unfortunately, still do today.
What knits the parts into the glorious whole that is “Lackawanna Blues” is the music. On stage for the entire 90-minute play with no intermission, the blues guitarist Junior Mack strums mostly original music by Santiago-Hudson’s longtime collaborator Bill Sims, Jr. And this is where Mr. Santiago-Hudson proves himself to be a triple threat. At several moments during the play, he breaks out a harmonica and plays some incredible blues licks worthy of the late great Toots Thielemans. As well as proving himself an accomplished singer.
“Lackawanna Blues” is not to be missed. Funny, insightful, eye-opening, heartwarming, all the things!
“Lackawanna Blues” Written, Performed and Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Music performed by Junior Mack; Guitarist Cover: Ayodele Maakheru
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.; Production Stage Manager, Kamra A. Jacobs; Associate Director, Gabriel Vega Weissman; Stage Manager, Mandisa Reed; Press Representative, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Presented by The Manhattan Theatre Club, Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow; Executive Producer, Barry Grove. Playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street through November 7th. For tickets visit the box office OR visit telecharge.com OR call 212-239-6200.