On a bare stage with only Bill Sims Jr. in the shadows accompanying and punctuating the dialogue with acoustic blues guitar, actor and first-time playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson recreates more than 20 figures from his childhood. “Lackawanna Blues” is a touching ode to Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, the boardinghouse owner and restauranteur who raised Santiago-Hudson, whose own destitute mother was often absent for long hours at work.
The semi-autobiographical two-man show debuted in New York’s Joseph Papp Public theatre in April 2001 to much acclaim and an Obie award. The show is playing at the Long Wharf Theatre as part of its cross country tour.
The story is set against the context of the surge of African-American migration during the 1950s from the South to cities like Lackawanna, NY where jobs in steel plants, grain mills and railroads on the shores of Lake Erie were abundant. Nanny welcomed the town’s down-and-out — abused spouses, scarred veterans, and those with just no place else to go — into the two boarding houses and restaurant she owned, helping and looking out for them even if they were also criminals, lunatics or prostitutes.
Despite the historical context in which it is set and the suffering of its characters, this musical journey remains surprisingly light-hearted and highly entertaining. The characters are colorful and endearing, linked by their accounts of Nanny, “a rock for those in need.” The only perspective missing from the play is that of Nanny herself. She is a tough no-nonsense character, who is also spiritual and loving. She goes so far as to take in a raccoon (acted with a rather amusing waddle by Santiago-Hudson), who becomes the first tenant to be kicked out because of his stubborn breakfast demands of eggs and toast every morning.
Santiago-Hudson is astounding in his various roles. He assumes the mannerisms and vocal tics of men and women, old and young, black and white, depicting each character so vividly that with a slight change of stance and expression what would otherwise have been long monologues become intelligible conversations between two characters. For instance, Ol’ Po’ Carl, “a former baseball player in the negro league,” who hints at the racism he endured but keeps the audience laughing with misspoken phrases such as “beauty is in the behind of the beholder” and his fear of suffering from “roaches of the liver.” Or Mr. Lemuel Taylor, recently released from a psychiatric ward, who has one leg and a lizard-like tongue that rapidly flicks in and out of his mouth. Santiago-Hudson switches from a confident feminine sashay to an old man’s stagger with the ease of Sims’ guitar slides.
Although he delivers both monologues and entire scenes with multiple roles — like the brawl between Numb Finger Pete and one-legged Lemuel Taylor — Santiago-Hudson keeps it clear, deceptively simple and refreshingly honest. His sense of humor and engaging storytelling technique, combined with the all-too-infrequent bursts of song and mean blues on the harmonica keep the audience thoroughly engrossed. Sims’ comic twangs are right on cue and he adds soul and sass with an original score of five songs. They include the moving lament, “I Wonder When I’ll Be a Man,” which accompanies the story of Freddie, a former soldier who was not allowed to carry a gun in World War II and is still considered a boy upon returning.
Director Loretta Greco keeps the pace up and uses the blank space and pool of blue light well.
Written and performed by Tony award-winning Santiago-Hudson, the play is a moving and personal story that avoids sentimentality, even as it openly showcases his deep admiration for Nanny Crosby.