What exactly does Ruben Santiago-Hudson not do in the first Broadway revival of his 2001 play “Lackawanna Blues,” which opened Thursday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre? He has written, directed and stars, giving himself at least two dozen characters to play in this one-person show about growing up Black in the steel town of Lackawanna, New York, in the 1950s and beyond. He sings the blues, accompanied by guitarist Junior Mack, and he plays a mean harmonica, as well as a wide range of characters — including an adorable pet raccoon that’s let loose into the wild, much to the disappointment of Junior.
Junior is Santiago-Hudson as a young boy raised in a boarding house owned and operated by an amazing entrepreneur nicknamed Nanny, aka Ms. Rachel Crosby. Nanny essentially adopts Junior when she discovers that his working single mother leaves him alone all day in the small space the mother and child call home.
We’ll get to some of the other 22 characters later. The miracle of this “Lackawanna Blues” is the absolute lack of effort Santiago-Hudson shows in switching from an adult woman to a little boy. The feat brought back memories of seeing “The Lehman Trilogy” at the Armory in 2019 and having to cringe every time the three talented actors were called upon to play a child or female character. They were great essaying the many adult male characters. But the women and kids?! (Two of those three actors open on Broadway in “The Lehman Trilogy” later this month.)
Santiago-Hudson fully embodies Nanny and Junior with bare adjustments in his vocal range and body language. The tour-de-force in minimalism, however, comes later in the play when the actor stands in place to segue between a supremely protective Nanny and a man who has come to retrieve his girlfriend after practically beating her to death. There’s an extended moment in this nail-biting encounter in which Santiago-Hudson communicates this tense stand-off by standing still and not saying a word. His body says it all — for not one but both characters.
Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award as featured actor for his performance in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” but he is better known on Broadway for his direction of plays by Wilson and others. It would be fascinating to watch him direct actors. Do any of them ever give a better performance of his or her respective character than Santiago-Hudson?
He wrote “Lackawanna Blues” more than a decade before Charles Blow published his 2014 memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” now an opera performing at the Metropolitan Opera. “Fire” owes a lot to “Blues.” There’s the gun-toting mother figure. An absent yet abusive father figure, and while Junior never suffers the sexual abuse of the young Charles in “Fire,” there is an incident in his childhood that is nearly as formative and harrowing.
The characters in “Lackawanna Blues” talk a lot about food, and somehow even a meal of Pepsi cola and potato chips manages to sound mouth-watering. But it is the description of everybody’s clothes that most impresses. It’s pretty basic stuff – shirts, boots, dresses, the usual – but Santiago-Hudson uses their ordinariness to expose what these garments cover. And what they don’t. Nearly every character in “Lackawanna Blues” is missing something, whether it’s a leg, a breast, a forearm, fingers, an eye, their mind. This attention to missing body parts recalls a line in Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” when a young boy looks through a Sears Roebuck catalogue to see all the perfect bodies, and realizes they resemble nobody he has ever seen in the flesh.
Caldwell was writing about the Deep South, Santiago-Hudson the urban North. But the same violence permeates both places, often erupting in disfigurement and even death.
“Lackawanna Blues” features only two white characters, both of whom are played without condescension. Upon visiting them, Junior and Nanny notice that the snow outside the rich woman’s house is “white.” They then return to their rooming house, near the billowing chimneys of the steel mill, where the snow is “orange.”