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I didn't know what love
was till I tasted her cooking.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Photo: Michal
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
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.
Les Gutman based on 4/11/01 performance