A one-actor play requires a lot of skill. It is hard to engage audiences for an hour or two without someone else to see or a change of scenery. But, Ruben Santiago-Hudson effectively captures attention and pays tribute in “Lackawanna Blues,” his play about his childhood and the warm-hearted woman who helped raise him, that opened this week at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
While relating tales about the influence on him of the wise boardinghouse owner, Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, Santiago-Hudson morphs into nearly two-dozen characters affected by her ministrations and sagacity. Besides starring in his work, Tony-winning actor also directed “Lackawanna Blues.” Additionally, the show features live music performed by Chris Thomas King, a Grammy-winning blues guitarist and composer, sometimes augmented by the multi-talented Santiago-Hudson on harmonica.
Great Lakes Grit
With an air of gratitude, the actor depicts life and the characters that filled the eccentric boardinghouse in Lackawanna, a small New York town by Lake Erie. Tired of serving others, Crosby became her own boss – buying area houses in the 1950s, renting rooms and serving meals to minorities. People seeking work and new starts migrated from the South to the post-war industrialized cities along the Great Lakes, such as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Lackawanna’s neighbor Buffalo. Nanny took in families and, as Santiago-Hudson states, “provided food, shelter and clothing for them, like the government, if it really worked.”
Crosby became a surrogate parent to the Puerto Rican and African-American future actor when he was young and she found out his mom was leaving him alone. Shadowing her from then on, Santiago-Hudson conveys how her warmth and generosity to all, including those who fell through society’s cracks, taught him about raising up others and believing in them.
The quirky boarders and visitors included in the “Lackawanna Blues” come from all walks of life, except the well-to-do. A gifted storyteller, Santiago-Hudson shifts voices and mimics his characters’ idiosyncrasies, habits and malaprops in a way that entertains without ridiculing. There are caring mothers, petty hustlers, lost souls, disabled, and even a former Negro League baseball player who all “partook and partied” at Nanny’s. He charms as the drinking athlete diagnosed with “roaches of the liver” talking about the “Entire State Building,” or the one-legged man with a tongue that stuck out and made him look “like a giant Negro iguana.” He even smoothly switches between Nanny and her philandering husband Bill. One of the more moving tales involves the actor’s recollection of a visit with Nanny to a one-legged, emotionally disturbed vet who eventually becomes a member of the Lackawanna household.
Long Road to Taper
“Lackawanna Blues” debuted off Broadway in 2001. Four years later, it became a television movie with each character fleshed out a little and embodied by a different actor or actress. However, ultimately, “Lackawanna Blues” is Santiago-Hudson’s personal tale and one-man tour de force. He makes the show work. He has extensive film, television and stage credits, but his love for nanny and fond recollections of his childhood shine through. Lackawanna Blues” succeeds as his tribute to the warm-hearted woman who taught him about life and love.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance March 13, 2019
Center Theatre Group: Performance Begin for ‘Lackawanna Blues’ at Taper
New York Times: THEATER REVIEW; Thanks, Miss Rachel, Thanks for Raising Me
Photo by Craig Schwartz of Chris Thomas King (background) and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the Center Theatre Group production of “Lackawanna Blues.”