Mar. 16, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Lackawanna Blues," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Mar. 5 – Apr. 21, 2019
In Brief: Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings his childhood in a Lackawanna, NY boarding house vividly to life a half century later. It's a touching, funny, generous portrait of a bygone era.
There’s so much virtuoso talent, sheer pleasure, and emotional depth in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s triumphant one-person show at the Mark Taper that it’s hard to know what to praise first.
Chris Thomas King and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in “Lackawanna Blues” (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Is it his affectionate, very often funny account of the indomitable, compassionate, nurturing black woman, Miss Rachel, who created a thriving boarding house business for herself out of nothing and raised him as her own child, instilling in the boy a sense of wonder, humility, and a world view that transcended their humble roots?
Is it Santiago-Hudson’s tour-de-force solo performance? He masterfully inhabits each of twenty or so colorful characters – men and women of varying backgrounds, ages, temperaments – gliding seamlessly between roles and eras to provide a tender picture of his childhood with Miss Rachel in Lackawanna, NY in the 1950s and 1960s.
Is it Michael Carnahan’s unpretentious yet theatrical set and Jen Schriever’s evocative lighting that frame, enhance, and add interest and dimension to the magical storytelling, keen observations, and irresistible characterizations?
Of course, it’s all of these in concert that add up to a thrilling, heartfelt theatrical experience fully deserving of the standing ovation Mr. Santiago-Hudson received on opening night.
What is equally impressive is that while Lackawanna Blues debuted at New York’s Public Theater in 2001, it feels as fresh, timely, and emotionally resonant as ever today, a testament to Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s substantial gift for uncovering meaning and drama in even the smallest details and his consummate talent as an actor and storyteller.
The play is his potent montage of reminiscences of Miss Rachel, or Nanny, as she was also known.
Nanny becomes his surrogate family after his mother abandons him. Various incidents in their life together are portrayed. Mr. Santiago-Hudson summons up a large cast of quirky characters – boarders, battered women, a Negro League ball player, an ex-con who needed a second chance to restart his life, Nanny’s roving husband, Bill, and many others.
"An exultant portrait of the vibrant city, the defiant people, the fateful impressions, and the consequential lessons of the playwright's youth"
Most of them benefited from Nanny's strength of character, intelligence, and basic goodness. Mr. Santiago-Hudson makes it clear that a few were subjected to her wrath, as well. But all added layers of flavor to the rich stew that was the Lackawanna of the playwright’s formative years.
Mr. Santiago-Hudson recalls these stories at times through the wonder and wide-eyed innocence of a small child, at others as a mature, reflective poet, as in this rich description of Lackawanna at the start of the play:
Jobs everywhere, money everywhere. Steel plants, grain mills, railroads, the docks. Everybody had a new car and a conk. Restaurants, bars, stores, everybody made money. The smell of fried fish, chicken and pork chops floating in the air every weekend. In every bar the aroma of a newly tapped keg of Black Label, Iroquois, or Genessee beer, to compliment that hot roast beef-on-weck with just a touch of horseradish.
And still more sensory imagery:
After-hour joints were jumping, sisters from Alabama frying pork rinds, brothers from Tennessee slopping sauce on freshly smoked slabs of ribs and shots of Black Velvet or Canadian Club whiskey overrunning the shot glasses. Numbers men in tailor-made suits losing hundreds on the black jack table and still cool enough to slow drag in front of the juke box with Miss Jerda or bop to Reete-Petite with Miss Jadie. Negroes getting shot or cut every week. Everybody wearing a gangster scar with pride.
The production includes a running R&B guitar score composed by Bill Sims, Jr. and here performed sensitively on stage by Chris Thomas King. Mr. Santiago-Hudson himself sings several blues songs and punctuates the different anecdotes with his own harmonica interludes that the audience warmly cheered.
A one-person play can be just as gratifying, just as enjoyable as a big show. It may be more meaningful, too. Stripped of elaborate production elements, it can focus its message, allowing the audience to see without distraction what’s on the author’s mind and in his heart.
Lackawanna Blues paints an exultant portrait of the vibrant city, the defiant people, the fateful impressions, and the consequential lessons of the playwright's youth. It's a world, however idealized, that doesn't exist anymore. Mr. Santiago-Hudson shows not only that he can go home again, but that he also wants to take us along with him on his soul-stirring journey.
For that, we must thank him profusely.
"Lackawanna Blues," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org