Once upon a time when Buffalo, Lackawanna, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg and other cities in the North were humming with industry, jobs, hope and prosperity, blacks migrated northward from the Jim Crow oppressions, danger and poverty of the South. Their industry, hard work and efforts contributed to a thriving black middle class which eventually petitioned and protested against the government for Civil Rights reform. In his one-man musical Lackawanna Blues, currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Ruben Santiago-Hudson weaves together a beautiful elegy to the people of Lackawanna, New York, who grew him up and impacted the course of his life.
Santiago-Hudson writes, directs, performs-sings, blows a mean harmonica and dances his joy and revelations about Lackawanna, whose current population statistics indicate is growing out of its period of decline during previous decades. Accompanied by the superb Junior Mack on guitar, Santiago-Hudson transforms himself into more than twenty distinctive and unique characters that peopled his formative years, when his beloved Ms. Rachel Crosby raised him. He, and most of the people who knew her, lovingly called her Nanny.
Nanny is at the center of his remembrance, the star of the production, the good and faithful servant on earth, who, laid to rest, brings on God’s greatest praise, “Well done.” Santiago-Hudson’s reflections on Nanny, through her interactions with others, indicate why God praises her so. The acute characterizations melded together and heightened by Mack’s guitar riffs and Santiago-Hudson’s jazz/blues harmonica and songs, reveal a woman we’d all love to be protected by. The picture is glorious. It is of individuals in need, beaten down by human cruelty being helped back up by a compassionate, loving, generous woman, more dignified than the government. Santiago-Hudson brings us into the cloud of witnesses to behold Nanny’s Christianity
Not to be understated is the underlying theme. We discover through humor and pathos, a migrating black culture settling in the middle of a white culture which wasn’t loving. As a result, Nanny “stood in the gap” with grace and a pure heart. Through the men and women that the prodigious Santiago-Hudson effects with his amazing performance skills, we come to know Ol’ Po’ Carl, Lottie, Ricky, Mr. Lemuel Taylor, Numb Finger Pete, Norma, Norma’s Mother, Bill, Dick Johnson, Sweet Tooth Sam and others who Nanny feeds, clothes, boards, chides, scolds and threatens in her way like a rod of Godly justice. Heck! You know they had it coming and invariably, they listen to her like chastened children in a kindergarten class.
What makes Lackawanna Blues so remarkable, apart from the music, is how Santiago-Hudson inhabits the characters with incredible details of speech, phrasing, word choice, stance, voice, behavior and walk, and in the twinkling of an eye switches from individual to individual without taking a noticeable breath. This is his understanding of these individuals’ souls and spirits, fictionalized with the sheen of memory. Interestingly, the result is in the revelation of this humanity, we become humanized with new knowledge of the time, place and culture. The effect is that we empathize and are fascinated to learn of each individual, to learn how Nanny attempts to bring them to wholeness. Though we may never have had a wonderful Nanny in our lives who demonstrated forgiveness and kindness, nor may we never have experienced some of the rough types that she took into her boarding houses and provided a meal, a bed and comforting words of hope to, we understand and experience her through Santiago-Hudson’s gifts of transference.
Each of Santiago-Hudson’s portraits of humanity are heart-felt. In some instances, they are so authentic you believe Pauline is standing before you, though Santiago-Hudson is wearing his shirt and pants throughout. Thematically, male or female, whether whole or in pieces as some of the characters are who have lost a limb or fingers, all have dignity and are respected regardless of their foolishness and hijinks. Through Nanny’s love, they are worthy of that respect and dignity. She elevates them from their low-down and fearful view of themselves.
,The writing and acting is breathtaking. Elegiac is the nearest word that comes to mind. However, that, too, is limited because there is great breadth of cultural humor and irony that allows the audience to laugh at themselves as much as they laugh at the situations the characters get into helped by Nanny’s wise responses which give them a way of escape.
The suggestive blues club lighting (Jen Schriever) and minimalistic stage design (Michael Carnahan) convey the blues/sadness of each story. Karen Perry’s costume design reminds us that Santiago-Hudson doesn’t need costume tricks to become characters. He can effuse them with a smile, tilt of the head, protruding tongue or swagger. I loved the brick wall backdrop, majestic door, lighted window suggesting one of Nanny’s boarding houses, like whisps lifted from memory, that in turn lift us into timeless space and the ethers of imagination. The minimalism encourages a unified realm of audience consciousness thrilled to see and feel and experience live performance. Additional kudos for Darron L West’s sound design.
Santiago-Hudson states in the program that the musical is dedicated to the memory of Bill Sims Jr. who wrote the original music for Lackawanna Blues. In spirit Bill Sims Jr. and Nanny are the force that assists Santiago-Hudson in his dynamite portrayals, in his expressive joy and poignancy, and in his paean to a past that brought him to where he is today, on a Broadway stage.
This is one that you don’t want to miss for the humor, writing, Junior Mack’s guitar and the easy way Bill Sims Jr.’s music tonally breezes the themes of goodness overpowering cruelty and hatred, love answering wrath and anger. Lackawanna Blues is uplifting and unifying in this time of division. It reminds us that we all crave love, forgiveness and care, all of us. That goodness lasts a lifetime and beyond. It stops the trajectory of destruction and converts sorrow and hurt to wholeness. And it brings spiritual life and love. Nanny is one for the ages. Hudson-Santiago’s portrayal is beyond triumphant. For tickets and times go to the website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/lackawanna-blues/