Ruben Santiago-Hudson Makes Music of the Past in ‘Lackawanna Blues’

On at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 'Lackawanna Blues' explores survival and finding heart in your own life, backed by harmonica.

Ruben Santiago – Hudson (front/standing), Junior Mack (back/seated) Marc Franklin

The week I caught Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues the Twittersphere was abuzz over the “Bad Art Friend” literary scandal. TLDR: Narcissistic writer donates a kidney, expecting social-media glory; frenemy writer pens a satirical story inspired by the incident; the first writer cries betrayal and plagiarism; the second writer claims artistic license. Lawsuits follow. Everyone looks bad.

I thought about the ethical responsibility of the writer to real people during Lackawanna Blues, which premiered 20 years ago at the Public Theater and now makes its Broadway bow at Manhattan Theatre Club. In it, writer-director Santiago-Hudson embodies a couple dozen characters he encountered growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in an upstate New York boardinghouse for mostly Black residents. Chief among them is Rachel Crosby, a.k.a. Nanny, an iron-willed matriarch who protects neglected children, abused women, and broken men.

Who knows how much of the story is freely embellished or recalled with verbatim veracity. Did schoolboy Ruben write down the stories he heard? Did everything happen that he says happened? Frankly, I don’t care, and those people have long returned to dust. What matters is that an artist crafted a beautiful folk patchwork from childhood memories.

This is an adoption bildungsroman; Santiago-Hudson’s single mom (a bartender) didn’t have the time or resources to raise him properly. So, tearfully, she surrendered the toddler to Nanny, who made the care and education of the boy her special project. In a later act of heroism, the remarkable woman stood up to an abusive Black boxer whose battered white wife sought refuge at one of Nanny’s houses. With a shift of posture and rearrangement of arms, Santiago-Hudson conjures up a tense standoff between the violent pugilist and the resolute Nanny.

Robust but graceful, the actor effects dozens of sharply etched transformations over the course of 90 minutes, as denizens of Nanny’s house come forward to share their stories. There’s the one-legged Mr. Lemuel Taylor, whose tongue darts in and out of his mouth like a lizard. Numb Finger Pete is so named because of the digits he lost to frostbite; he and Taylor get into an awkward scuffle. Small Paul confesses the murder of a girlfriend and her lover in a jealous rage, and how in prison he learned to “talk American.” As a boy, Mr. Luscious took revenge on a white man for an insult, then hid in a swamp, where he was bitten by a snake and lost an arm. Although the stories reek of injustice and pain, they’re told lightly by the survivors.

We keep returning to these wounded yet pugnacious men, who must have fascinated and frightened young Ruben. Nanny holds the center of the story, as the surrogate parent who never failed our narrator, and always believed in him. Although she’s portrayed as part entrepreneur and part saint, Nanny has her own weakness: good-looking but untrustworthy men. One of them, the philandering Bill, casually mistreats young Ruben and incurs Nanny’s wrath. 

Such basic storytelling, a collection of vignettes peppered with musical passages, could have been presented quite minimally, but MTC wraps Santiago-Hudson’s colorful yarns in a handsome package. Michael Carnahan’s grandly dilapidated proscenium arcs over the stage; Jen Schriever’s lights evoke the ghosts and shadows of yesteryear; Darron L. West’s sound design balances speech and music — of which there’s an abundance. Santiago-Hudson isn’t alone on stage: He’s backed by accomplished guitarist Junior Mack, who strums and frets the original blues score by Bill Simms, Jr. Santiago-Hudson jams along on harmonica, wailing and keening into the air when words just aren’t enough. 

“I wonder when will I get to be called a man?” Santiago-Hudson croons in the blues classic by Big Bill Broonzy. In this mean and unfair world, his play suggests, it can take more than a lifetime to grow up and claim your dignity. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson Makes Music of the Past in ‘Lackawanna Blues’