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Review: You Won't Sing the Blues at Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Lackawanna

Lackawanna Blues makes its Broadway debut two decades after its off-Broadway premiere.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Junior Mack in Lackawanna Blues
(© Marc J. Franklin)

In a world of increasing evil, sometimes all you need to strengthen your belief in humanity is a story that reminds you that goodness exists. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Lackawanna Blues, belatedly receiving its Broadway premiere via Manhattan Theatre Club 20 years after it debuted at the Public Theater, is that story, a tale of a kind woman taking care of her community, and how those actions inspired her young ward to try and change the world himself.

Ms. Rachel Crosby, or Nanny, as she was commonly known, is that woman. Her charge is the playwright and performer himself, who created this moving tribute to his surrogate mother in the spring of 2001, and, in the wake of 9/11, toured this story of compassion to regional theaters across the country. Their relationship is that of parent and child, though Nanny was of no blood relation to young Ruben. She wasn't related to anyone she took care of, but a little fact like that didn't get in the way of her maternal instincts. Operating a few boarding houses in Lackawanna, New York, Nanny became a proxy guardian to everyone who landed under her roof, whether they were recently released from a psychiatric facility, a former convict, or just in need of a hot bowl of soup.

Santiago-Hudson simultaneously narrates the story and plays all the characters. What he does over the course of 90 minutes is a real feat of acting; simply costumed by Dede Ayite in a guayabera, he transforms himself into more than two dozen figures simply through subtle shifts in body language, physicality, and vocal patterns, all accentuated by the haunted lighting of Jen Schriever. He transmits the essences of characters like Ol' Po' Carl, the former Negro Leagues player forced to give up the drink after being diagnosed with "roaches of the liver," the single-legged Lemuel Taylor, who pitched a rock across a pond with such force it looked like he levitated, and eccentrics like Numb Finger Pete, Small Paul, Sweet Tooth Sam, Lackawanna Smitty, and more, all though a change in the way he stands or a hunch of the shoulders. It's just so enjoyable to watch him play, and set designer Michael Carnahan provides him with a beautifully ramshackle set that evokes real-life and memory simultaneously.

It's easy to see why Lackawanna Blues was a hit at the Public — Santiago-Hudson's words are soul-filling, and his performance is one of the more amazing solo turns I've seen (he's backed by blues guitarist Junior Mack, taking over for the late Bill Sims Jr., who originally joined the writer onstage). It's even clearer why the play really took off in the post-September 11 world; who couldn't use some kindness then? In a post-pandemic, post-George Floyd United States, this story of an unsung hero like Nanny, who probably saved the lives of so many disenfranchised men and woman by simply feeding and housing them, is all the more relevant.

I'm glad Santiago-Hudson decided to bring Nanny back to reopen the Friedman Theatre. We could use more people like her these days. Imagine that: a world where everyone operates with benevolence in mind. Wouldn't that be the place?

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