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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 24, 2001
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Lackawanna Blues’
Love is luck, particularly parental love. As
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
"Lackawanna Blues," on stage at McCarter Theater through
4, is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idealized tribute to the woman who
him. Loose on storyline, it is made up of strings of memories.
a one-person play, it is a loving portrayal of Nanny and the
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
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.
refuses to judge his characters, treating everyone, even a
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.
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
Santiago-Hudson has been a successful actor for some time, winning
a Tony award in 1996 for his role in August Wilson’s "Seven
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
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
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
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
that of Sybil; he plays more than 40 separate characters in the show’s
80-minute running time (without an intermission). His characters
Ol’ Po’ Carl, a 79-year-old man spouting off about his years playing
in the Negro Leagues and dotting his speech with outrageous
Numb Finger Pete and Mr. Lemuel Taylor battling in the
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
609-258-2787. Continues to November 4. $30 to $43.
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