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‘Lackawanna Blues,’ Starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson is Just Superb!

(seated): Junior Mack, Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Marc J. Franklin)

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.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Marc J. Franklin)

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.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Marc J. Franklin)

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.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Marc J. Franklin

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.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Lia Chang)

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.

(L to R): Junior Mack, Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues (Lia Chang)

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/

Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Trip Cullman

Manhattan Theatre Club, Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Nicholas L. Ashe, Trip Cullman, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope,

(L to R): Niholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John lay III in ‘Choir Boy,’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Trip Cullman (Michael Murphy)

Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?

Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.

Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper in ‘Choir Boy,’ directed by Trip Cullman, Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor.  Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?

Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Manhattan Theatre ClubNicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope

(L to ): Nicholas L. Ashe, Jonathan Burke, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt, John Clay III, Gerald Caesar in ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club (Michael Murphy)

Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.

McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.

McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.

Choir Boy, Austin Pendleton, Nicholas L. Ashe, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Trip Cullman

The cast of ‘Choir Boy’ on Broadway (Michael Murphy)

Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.

The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.

Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy, Manhattan Theatre Club, Caleb Eberhardt

(L to R): Jeremy Pope,Caleb Eberhardt, ‘Choir Boy,’ Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway (Michael Murphy)

On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..

During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.

The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).

Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.

 

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