By: Paulanne Simmons
October 24, 2021: Ruben Santiago-Hudson is certainly a talented man. He’s a great writer, a great actor and a great director. His solo show at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre demonstrates all those talents. But it is not a great show.
Lackawanna Blues premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2001. Four years later, the solo show became an HBO film, with a full cast. Now it’s again a solo show. However, Junior Mack plays the score written by the late Bill Sims Jr. It’s the largely autobiographical story of Santiago-Hudson’s boyhood in upstate New York under the loving care of Rachel Crosby, a woman he calls “Nanny.” But the show does not really center on either Santiago-Hudson or Nanny. It’s rather a panoramic view of the many people Nanny took under her wing at her boarding house.
There are abused women, a former prisoner, alcoholics, a psychiatric patient and a bunch of people who collectively are missing so many parts of their body one almost thinks those parts could form a whole new person. There’s even a pet raccoon who stands with paws extended in supplication when Nanny returns him to the wild. Those who benefit from her charity and goodwill are mostly black and victims of racism, a few are white and victims of bad luck.
Aside from her philanthropic tendencies, we don’t learn much about Nanny. She came North after her white employer reversed course and refused to let her take a cake home. She has an abusive relationship with Bill, a man whom Ruben calls “Uncle,” even though he seems to be the only father figure Ruben has ever known. But what we learn about that relationship is limited to Nanny’s care for the various children Bill has fathered and her determination to protect Ruben from Bill’s more vicious tendencies.
Most of the monologue is accompanied by Bill Sims Jr.’s soulful guitar. Occasionally Santiago-Hudson joins in on a powerful and bluesy harmonica. The music and the set, the not quite complete brick wall of an apartment building, with one door and one window, combine to create a feeling of temporary stability and permanent sorrow.
Santiago-Hudson brings all these people to life with remarkable physicality and magical changes of voice. Despite their obvious pain, many of the characters are enormously funny. Often they are wise and philosophical. But in the end, there are so many of them and their stories of mistakes and misfortune are so similar it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart.
As talented as Santiago-Hudson is, Lackawanna Blues might have benefitted from the input of someone not so closely involved with the story. As he might have learned from his Nanny, sometimes we all need a little help from others.
Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 W. 47th St., NYC.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
(212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
Oct. 7—Nov. 12, 2021. Photography: Marc J Franklin