After my tickets to “Lackawanna Blues” were canceled twice because Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the author, director and star of this autobiographical solo show, had injured his back, I searched for the 2005 HBO movie that had been adapted from his play. It turned out to be available for free on YouTube. (see below.) When I finally got to see the play on Broadway, the contrast was instructive.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, with a screenplay by Santiago-Hudson himself, the movie stars S. Epatha Merkeson as Rachel Crosby, whom everybody called Nanny, an extraordinary woman who largely raised Ruben, and was at the center of the Black community in Lackawanna, a steel town in Upstate New York that was thriving in 1956, when Ruben was born. Nanny ran a boardinghouse and several other businesses, but her true occupation was taking care of anybody who needed her. “Nanny was like the government if it really worked,” the film’s narrator tells us.
There are a riveting series of scenes of Nanny helping Ruben’s mother give birth to him; of her threatening her own husband for mistreating Ruben; her protecting an abused wife from her boxer husband, of her talking down a Vietnam veteran from a violent hallucination.
While the central story in the film is the relationship between Nanny and Ruben, she was also like a mother to his parents, as well as to the group of colorful misfits who lived in her boardinghouse. “Most of the roomers were ramblers or drifters of some sort. Most had some experience with prison or mental hospitals, alcohol or drugs, gambling, prostitution, pimping or church.”
The film features a huge and terrific cast, many of them well-known performers (Mose Def, Terrence Howard, Louis Gossett Jr., Jimmy Smits, Rosie Perez, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Michael K. Williams.) Nearly every character makes a vivid impression.
There’s Ol’ Po’ Carl (portrayed by Lou Myers), who was “a raconteur and king of the malaprops,” whom we see talking about having visited New York City to see the “Statue of Delivery,” and “The Entire State Building,” and how his doctor diagnosed him as having “roaches of the liver.”
Saul Williams, the slam poet who later starred on Broadway in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” portrays Lonnie, the vet who turns violent; “Nanny used to say all of him went to Vietnam, only half of him came back.”
There’s Numb Finger Pete (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who saw himself as smarter than everybody else because he had a year of college, but who got his nickname because he drunkenly lay in the snow so long that his fingers became frostbitten and had to be removed.
Delroy Lindo portrays Mr. Lucious, who tells the young Ruben the long, elaborate story of how he lost his arm, which involved his taking revenge on a white man who had denigrated his woman, and then escaping into a swamp, only to be bitten by a snake. When Mr. Lucious first showed up at the rooming house, he explains, Nanny asked him: “‘What happened to your arm?’ I said, “I was defending this lady’s honor.Then she said ‘I’m just gonna tell you right now, just in case you ever wonder, I can handle my own honor, so your other arm is safe.’ “
For the stage version of “Lackawanna Blues,” Ruben Santiago-Hudson used some of the exact same sentences as the film’s narrator, but to much better effect. He introduced us to the same characters and the same stories, and others who were left out of the movie, such as the raccoon that insisted every morning that Nanny make it breakfast.
Santiago-Hudson, who first performed “Lackawanna Blues” as a one-man show on stage at the Public Theater in 2001, is without question a consummate storyteller, with a speaking voice that’s so rhythmic and expressive that it seemed like another one of the musical instruments used in the show. (Musical interludes featured Junior Mack’s blues guitar picking and Santiago-Hudson’s own harmonica playing.) Lines that felt matter-of-fact in the movie – such as the one about Nanny being like the government – landed perfectly on stage, greeted with laughter and appreciative applause.
I found Santiago-Hudson’s narrative funny, astute, sometimes moving; the music was gorgeous But I had a different reaction to his impersonations of the large cast of characters, and to his relating of scenes that had been so absorbing in the movie. As impressive as his vocal dexterity in impersonating some two dozen characters, sometimes switching back and forth among them in rapid succession, I was too often unable to distinguish who was supposed to be speaking, and I was confused enough that my attention started drifting. I had no such problem with the movie, although the two works cover much the same territory and both are 90 minutes long.
It struck me as ironic that here was a great theater artist, one I’ve long admired, right in front of me in the flesh, talking about people he actually knew growing up, and yet 16-year-old images flickering on a screen felt to me more vivid, more ….corporeal.
I’m not willing to attribute this to some switch in my allegiance, nor to the adjustments that theater artists and theatergoers alike have had to make back to the stage after some 18 months left alone with nothing but screens. I think it’s just that there are some characters – especially those on the margins of society — who deserve the clarity and dignity of being fully embodied.
Lackawanna Blues is at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater through November 12, 2021.