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CurtainUp Review
Lackawanna Blues

by Les Gutman

I didn't know what love was till I tasted her cooking.
--Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Photo: Michal Daniel)

Despite our best efforts at reducing it to words, love is an undefinable state, falling in the category of "you know it when you feel it". At some point in Lackawanna Blues, it suddenly dawns on you that what you are witnessing is an exhibition of true, unmistakable, undying love.

We know Ruben Santiago-Hudson as one of our finest actors; his magnetic performance here reconfirms that status. But, like many other performers, he has his own story to tell and now, thanks to the smart nurturing of The Public Theater, we get to see and hear it. Lackawanna is his ode to the woman who raised him: her name is Miss Rachel Crosby, but everyone called her Nanny.

Like many others that Nanny took under her protective wings, Santiago-Hudson was a lost soul -- in his case, a very young one. His mother was an addict when Nanny essentially adopted him: she was to be the only "real" mother he ever knew. Selfless and spirited, possessed of strong opinions but few judgments, Nanny operated boarding houses in Lackawanna, NY -- near Buffalo -- that were more like shelters than simple lodging. She was "a rock for all those in need". Growing up in these surroundings, Ruben was witness to the cavalcade of characters -- and I do mean characters -- that came through Nanny's door. He portrays a host (over 20) of them vividly. Although one of the hallmarks of most autobiography is egocentrism, it is a testament to Santiago-Hudson's upbringing that Lackawanna most certainly is not.

Santiago-Hudson shifts seamlessly from character to character, many times in a single conversation. It's a tough act to achieve, but Santiago-Hudson has the chops to pull it off magnificently. It is reminiscent of Anna Deveare Smith's Fire in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, but far more intimate and personal, teeming with poignancy and humor. There is Ol' Po' Carl, a baseball player whose malapropisms would challenge Yogi Berra off the field ("beauty is in the behind of the holder"); Mr. Lemuel Taylor, a one-legged man Nanny bailed out of a mental hospital; two women escaping their battering husbands; and "Uncle" Bill, the man who would move in with Nanny and stay until his death in 1981. Best of all is Ruben's evocation of his beloved Nanny, forceful through her life but perhaps most strikingly as he sat next to her deathbed -- from which she would arise, her work not yet done, a few more lives to rescue. Santiago-Hudson's language is sometimes quite lyrical, but most of all honest.

Onstage (a sparse but effective set by Myung Hee Cho, beautifully lit by James Vermeulen), Santiago-Hudson is joined by Bill Sims' blues guitar. The intensely felt bent pitches of the music are a perfect accompaniment to the story -- at times fully integrated as Santiago-Hudson sings along or plays the harmonica. This is not their first pairing: they made beautiful music together in Deep Down (review linked below) a few years ago.

"She always gave us hope and a hot meal," Nanny is eulogized. It's apparent she gave Ruben a lot more.

Review of Deep Down

Written and performed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Directed by Loretta Greco

with Bill Sims, Jr. on guitar, playing his original music
Set and Costume Design: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
Public Theater, LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (@Astor Place) Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening April 15, 2001 closing May 27, 2001
Tues. - Sat. @8, Sat. - Sun. @2; $45. Discounted rush tickets are available at the box office 1/2 hour before curtain for non-sold-out performances.

Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/11/01 performance


2001 CD-ROM Deluxe

The Broadway Theatre Archive

(C)Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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