Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 24, 2001

edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Lackawanna Blues’

Love is luck, particularly parental love. As

philosophers

and psychologists have noted for eons, one of the great injustices

in life is that one can’t pick one’s parents. Ruben Santiago-Hudson

fared as poorly as anyone in this great cosmic lottery, being born

to parents with no interest or abilities in raising a son. But unlike

most, he got a lucky break — while still a toddler his mother

abandoned him to the caring graces of Miss Rachel Crosby, whom he

called Nanny.

"Lackawanna Blues," on stage at McCarter Theater through

November

4, is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idealized tribute to the woman who

raised

him. Loose on storyline, it is made up of strings of memories.

Essentially

a one-person play, it is a loving portrayal of Nanny and the

assortment

of colorful outcasts, lunatics, and wayfarers who peopled the boarding

houses she ran in Lackawanna, New York, in the late 1950s and ’60s.

The entire play consists of Santiago-Hudson moving comfortably along

the front half of the McCarter stage, telling stories and inhabiting

the souls of the characters of his youth. But he is not totally alone.

Sitting to his right is guitarist Bill Sims Jr., looking like a wise

and grizzled guardian angel, playing mood-enhancing blues riffs

throughout

the play. Sims’s presence, as well as his finely honed music, adds

a great deal to the intimacy of the production.

As a play, "Lackawanna Blues" glows with life-affirming warmth

and understanding. Unlike many one-person plays, such as Anna Deavere

Smith’s "Fires in the Mirror," or Marc Wolf’s "Another

American: Asking and Telling," "Lackawanna Blues" is light

on anger and confrontation. There are no victims or villains.

Santiago-Hudson

refuses to judge his characters, treating everyone, even a

wife-beater,

with compassion and respect.

This is not to say that Nanny or the people around her don’t suffer

from the world’s injustices, such as racism or poverty.

Santiago-Hudson

acknowledges the effects of racism on his characters, but he doesn’t

raise it as a banner. He simply dips his toe into the muck of pain,

and moves on. The primary focus is on the little human moments of

life, moments that define day-to-day living, like finding a rusted

fishing rod in the mud or the soft feel of Nanny’s fingers brushing

through his hair as they ride through the summer air in their

four-door

Lincoln Continental.

Santiago-Hudson has been a successful actor for some time, winning

a Tony award in 1996 for his role in August Wilson’s "Seven

Guitars."

But "Lackawanna Blues" is his first foray into playwriting.

As a writer, he has an excellent ear for the music of words, shaping

the sounds and rhythms of everyday speech into finely tuned

idiosyncratic

revelations of character. His knack at bringing out poetic truth in

commonplace moments, to find beauty in places few would even think

to look, is the reason why "Lackawanna Blues" rings with such

heartfelt truth.

Of course, the success of a one-person play rides firmly

on the shoulders of the performer and Santiago-Hudson is certainly

up to the task. He makes his transformations from one character to

the next unmistakable, yet performs them with such finesse, that the

audience is not unlike a gathering of children watching a magician

perform real miracles. A quick shift in posture, a raising of an

eyebrow,

and a subtle raspiness added to the voice and Santiago-Hudson goes

from being a small boy fishing at a lake to a hard-bitten man looking

for a little hoochie-coochie in the backseat of his car.

Santiago-Hudson’s facility for displaying multiple personalities

rivals

that of Sybil; he plays more than 40 separate characters in the show’s

80-minute running time (without an intermission). His characters

include

Ol’ Po’ Carl, a 79-year-old man spouting off about his years playing

in the Negro Leagues and dotting his speech with outrageous

malapropisms;

Numb Finger Pete and Mr. Lemuel Taylor battling in the

"Numbfinger,

one-legged fight of the century;" and a group of people doing

"the dog," a dance in which a woman pulls her skirt so tight

that she could "sit on a dime and be able to tell you if it’s

heads or tails."

Despite its obvious attributes, "Lackawanna Blues" isn’t a

particularly profound work. Its nicely hewn portraits are rounded

at the edges, sweetened to please. But in seeing it, one experiences

many of the same feelings common at family gatherings, sitting around

the table, sipping coffee, and laughing about old times. And given

the current state of the world and our general anxieties about the

future, isn’t it fitting to spend time among friends, listening to

the old stories?

— Jack Florek

Lackawanna Blues, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Continues to November 4. $30 to $43.


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