July 15, 2002
'Blues' jives and wails, spins its tales
by Deborah Stone
Arts and Entertainment
The Obie-winning play, "Lackawanna Blues," just completed a successful run at Intiman Theatre. This inspiring and potent show, starring acclaimed playwright/performer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is a one man tour-de-force, filled with warmth, humor and tragedy. Santiago-Hudson, accompanied by blues musician Bill Sims Jr., pays homage to his real-life surrogate mother, "Nanny" (formally Miss Rachel Crosby), the big-hearted woman who raised him in the boarding house she ran in Lackawanna, N.Y., back in the 1950s. On a bare stage, with basically no props, Santiago-Hudson takes the audience back to the world of his childhood, embodying over twenty colorful characters who inhabited his predominantly African American neighborhood. Among them are many of the lost, scarred souls and down-and-outers who found refuge and comfort at Nanny's boarding house. With quick changes of voice and posture, Santiago-Hudson vividly recreates each individual. There's Norma, a young woman fleeing from Gerald, the abusive father of her children, and Mr. Lemuel Taylor, a one-legged man who has just finished a stay at the state mental hospital. They fit right in with Freddie Cobb, the illiterate World War II vet and Ol' Po' Carl, a Negro League ex-baseball player dying of "the roaches of the liver."
Throughout it all, Nanny is always present, nurturing and nourishing those in need, including little Reuben himself, who was abandoned by his mother when he was a young boy.
Santiago-Hudson gives us a portrait of a maternal, benevolent woman, full of inner strength and a loving spirit, but he takes care not to make her more than human. Nanny is no saint herself and she readily admits that she’ll fall for any man who’ll give her a pair of stockings. Her lengthy relationship with Bill, a ladies man many years her junior who once abandoned Reuben on a fishing trip, showed that even wise women can err in judgment. As Santiago-Hudson spins his autobiographical stories, blues master Bill Sims, sits on a chair, plucking blues riffs to match the tales.
Occasionally Santiago-Hudson pulls a harmonica from his pocket and joins in, bringing additional color to the scene and setting a variety of moods.
"Lackawanna Blues" jumps, jives and wails, as it weaves memorable pictures and evokes powerful emotions. It's a unique and heart-warming production that satisfies on all levels, without becoming maudlin and overly sentimental.
Up next at the Intiman is the world premiere of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America," a new play by Joan Holden based on the best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich.
The show opens July 26 and tickets may be purchased from the Intiman Theatre web site, www.intiman.org or over the phone at (206) 269-1900.