Theater Review: Lackawanna Blues at the Mark Taper Forum

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Photo by Craig Schwartz

Lackawanna Blues, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical solo show, has been on quite a journey since it first premiered at the Public Theater in New York in 2001. After that first production, which won a special citation Obie Award, it played at multiple regional theaters across the United States before being adapted into an HBO movie in 2005. Now, Santiago-Hudson has resurrected the play for the first time in 15 years at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. A spirited, funny, and affecting account of his upbringing in Lackawanna, New York, it works as well now as it presumably did in its first iteration, with Santiago-Hudson playing a whole cast of eccentric characters as well as directing.

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Photo by Craig Schwartz

Lackawanna, New York is a small town just south of Buffalo that is known as home to the steel company it is named after. As a result, the copious amounts of snow in the winter often appeared silver due to the specks of steel that seem to permeate the town’s very being. The story begins with Santiago-Hudson’s childhood in the 1950s. His parents were rarely around—his mother spent most of her life in and out of mental hospitals, and his father was unreliable as a parent and always focused on work. As a result, he was essentially raised by a woman named Miss Rachel, whom he affectionately called “Nanny,” who ran a boarding house where young Ruben and his father lived. The central character of the piece, Nanny acted as a surrogate mother to the entire community. Music, which was originally composed by Bill Sims Jr. and is performed onstage here by Chris Thomas King, who also composed additional music, is a big part of the show, with Santiago-Hudson occasionally chiming in on the harmonica, much to the audience’s delight.

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Photo by Craig Schwartz

In addition to narrating the show as himself as an adult and playing himself as a child, Santiago-Hudson takes on about 20 other characters, painting a vivid picture of the Lackawanna community and, most importantly, the significant effect Nanny had on it. He portrays her as endlessly compassionate—within reason—and tough as nails, detailing the hardships she overcomes in her life, as well as the ones that eventually defeat her. There’s an easy warmth and intimacy to the whole story. Santiago-Hudson often addressed the opening night audience directly, shattering the fourth wall, making it feel very much like a friend telling you his family history in a comfy living room. The musical sequences effectively break up the anecdotes, which are told in a more or less linear fashion. Occasional tangents describing the other colorful characters in town always circle back to Nanny, who acts as a safe harbor for not only Ruben, but for many people in town when they are going through tough times.

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Photo by Craig Schwartz

As a production, Lackawanna Blues is simple. The set is minimal, there are next to no props, and all of this is fine, because the music provides enough dimension to keep the story moving. It is really Santiago-Hudson’s honesty and energy that makes the story pop, and while the comedic asides are fun, this show shines brightest in the emotional, heartfelt moments. This may be one man’s story, but anyone who has fond memories of a close family member or caregiver will relate to the sentiments behind it, which are fleshed out in vivid detail by Santiago-Hudson’s thoughtful words.

Lackawanna Blues runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through April 21st. The running time is one hour and 20 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.

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