Ruben Santiago-Hudsonis a singer, and "Lackawanna Blues", his marvelous one-man memory play, is a pitch-perfect song. This journey to his youth in 1950's Lackawanna, New York is filled with vivid images of an exciting, eventful time when urban African-American's, in a booming post-war economy, had jobs, homes and opportunity. The result was a vital sense of community, and Mr. Santiago-Hudson has crafted this evening to show us his childhood, growing up in a lively boarding house presided over by a surrogate mother he called "Nanny". Accompanied by a blues guitar, that history comes to brilliant, affecting life through Mr. Santiago-Hudson's intimate, gifted storytelling.
In the tradition of the African Griot, and the American descendants of that tradition, this is an evening about tales handed on from generation to generation. We meet some two dozen characters, and each is deftly contrived through precise but subtle details, postures and expressions. Unlike many one-person shows, where part of the theatricality is the showy display of invention, this performance uses just enough gesture to animate and distinguish each individual, but never draws attention to acting. We see them, but we also never forget that we are being told about them. Ultimately, they meld into our own experience of the whole evening, become like elements of our own history, separate and distinct, but unified in one larger story.
The primary point of view comes through the voice of Nanny, the kind, powerful, complex, spiritual and earthy woman who taught Santiago-Hudson values, and showed him how to find the value in even the most defeated of those around him. I don't want to summarize all these characters, because it diminishes the way in which we know them through the show, but suffice to say that these are people from whom life has exacted sometimes staggering tolls. The omnipresent racism, exacerbated by injustices during the War, and further inflamed by alcohol, bad romances, poverty, or simply personal inadequacy gives each a right and reason to return to the blues. The impact of the original blues guitar accompaniment, written and performed by Bill Sims, Jr. can't be emphasized enough. While it is technically a one-man show, the music is woven into every moment of the performance, and not only secures the tone of the evening, but constantly pulls us back to a kind of authenticity and depth that gives the blues its unique voice.
The simple set design, by Myung Cho, uses only a stool and a pool of rich, blue light to keep us in the place where these stories come from. The direction, almost invisible in its demure competence, is by Loretta Greco. Clearly, she understands that Mr. Santiago-Hudson's story, and what it means to him, and what he wants it to mean to us, is all that this show is about. By the end of his performance, we've also grown up a little bit in Lackawanna, New York, and we certainly know that strong, guiding hand of a woman named Rachel Crosby, called "Mother" by those who lived in her boardinghouse, and forever "Nanny" to this man before us, this boy we watch grow.
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