Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in 18 months. I attended a Broadway show. And what a gift this first one back turned out to be. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues is a loving tribute to the woman who raised him. It is also a tribute to the man he grew to be as the playwright, director and star of this one-man autobiographical play at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
“Nanny treated me better than my own mother,” Santiago-Hudson says as he opens the play. For the next 90 intermission-less minutes he portrays Rachel Crosby, better known as Nanny, and the world of her boarding house in Lackawanna, NY, outside of Buffalo, in the middle of the last century. This world is populated by more than two dozen down-on-their-luck inhabitants, brought to life by Santiago-Hudson with kindness and humor. “Nanny treated everyone like a human being.”
Nanny was a Black woman from the South who found the freedom and prosperity of western New York so appealing that she encouraged all of her family members and friends to join her, paying for their tickets if necessary to get them out of the Jim Crow south and finding them jobs when they arrived.
“Nanny was like the government, if it really worked,” Santiago-Hudson tells the audience.
She worked hard enough to own three boarding houses, a taxi service and a restaurant. It was to one of those houses that the child Ruben arrived, finding far more than just a place to live after his mother, a barmaid who worked nights, largely abandoned him. He found a surrogate mother.
Scenic designer Michael Carnahan wisely leaves the set bare except for three stools, a small table and a straight-back chair. The effect of this simplicity, coupled with lighting designer Jen Schriever alteration of light and dark, is to focus all attention on one remarkable storyteller. The atmosphere is further enhanced through original jazz and blues music by the late Bill Sims Jr. and performed onstage throughout by guitarist Junior Mack. Santiago-Hudson also livens things up or slows them down with his harmonica playing.
This 64-year-old performer, who received a featured actor Tony Award in 1996 for his role in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, slides from character to character, using no props, just a change in his voice and facial expressions. His storytelling feels fresh, especially when he improvises. When a member of the audience was heard expressing recognition of Nanny’s love of having her scalp rubbed with grease, Santiago-Hudson turned to the audience and said, “This is some Black culture here for you all.”
In the larger theatre world this is the season for Black culture. If the pandemic doesn’t cause another shutdown, at least seven shows by Black writers will open on Broadway. The season before Covid, only two plays from Black playwrights were presented, and one of those was a revival. The prior year featured only one and the year before that none. Broadway has been criticized for years for its lack of diversity.
Lackawanna Blues was first produced at The Public Theater in 2001. Santiago-Hudson then adapted it for a 2005 HBO film, with the characters being played by different actors. It was nominated for an Emmy Award.
His love for Nanny remains palpable. When the boy Ruben tells her he wants to die before she does so he won’t have to live without her, she assures him that death is a part of life and that when she dies Jesus will hold out his arms to her and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Toward the end of the play he describes Nanny as someone who could “take fragments and make them whole. That’s just who she was.”
In his final scene he marks Nanny’s passing by looking to the right and up and saying quietly, “Well done,” before soulfully playing his harmonica. That’s when my tears started, and they continued to fall through the long and well-deserved standing ovation and as I walked up the aisle. Thank you, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, for such a moving afternoon of theatre. You blessed my soul. Now I say to you, well done.