Broadway review by Adam Feldman
In the first new Broadway production of the season, Pass Over, a grand picnic of home cooking is laid out onstage and then yanked away; the second, Lackawanna Blues, provides plentiful comfort food for its characters and its audience alike. Among the dishes mentioned in this show are fried fish, smoked ribs, pork chops, chicken feet and dumplings; when I saw it, a reference to glazed ham with cloves got a smattering of applause.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical solo is a gentle and generous tribute to the staunch woman who raised him—Rachel Crosby, known to many in her wide orbit as “Nanny”—and the gallery of misfits who passed through her boarding houses in upstate New York. In the late 1950s, when Santiago-Hudson was born, the thriving steel town of Lackawanna was a magnet for ambitious Black workers, but not everyone found it easy. That’s where Crosby came in, providing sustenance, shelter, inspiration and occasional protection for the vulnerable people under her wing—including the young Ruben, who had been neglected by his birth parents. As Santiago-Hudson puts it, in the show’s biggest applause line: “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.”
Santiago-Hudson slides smoothly into dozens of roles in this 90-minute collage of vignettes, including Nanny, and many of the people he plays are wounded: older men with one leg or one arm or no fingers or no marbles and no place else to go. (Even the animals in the play are damaged: a one-eyed cat, a three-legged dog.) They have colorful names like Sweet Tooth Sam, Numb Finger Pete and Ol' Po' Carl—a heavy drinker who, in his malaprop-prone wording, suffers from “the roaches of the liver”—and several serious criminal records. True to Miss Rachel’s example, the show mostly approaches them without judgment or condescension.
An accomplished actor and director, Santiago-Hudson has performed Lackawanna Blues many times since its debut at the Public Theater in 2001, and he knows how to keep it moving in this Manhattan Theatre Club revival. From a perch on the left side of the stage, guitarist Junior Mack provides smartly integrated blues underscoring and vocals, playing original music by Bill Sims Jr. (and occasionally joined by Santiago-Hudson on harmonica); Jen Schriever’s lighting gradually reveals previously imperceptible elements of Michael Carnahan’s deceptively simple-looking set. There is nothing revolutionary about Lackawanna Blues, but it is a loving and skillful evocation of a formidable Black woman and the community she was able to create, through the force of her character, in a world of lack and want. It satisfies a hunger that Broadway seldom serves.
Lackawanna Blues. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). Written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. With Santiago-Hudson, Junior Mack. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.