Review by Sandi Durell . . .
Technically this is a solo show and it’s Ruben Santiago-Hudson (writer, star, director) accompanied on guitar by Junior Mack (playing great blues of Bill Sims Jr.) on stage at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. In reality, there are over two dozen folks from Lackawanna, New York making their debuts from the 1950’s thru the present here in Santiago-Hudson ‘s recounting of his life growing up Black in this steel town. It’s been a long voyage of truth and persistence as he morphs flawlessly in voice and manner into the important, and not so important, figures who shaped his life one way or another. And before I forget to mention, he also plays a mean blues on his harmonica!
Most significant in this boy’s life was Nanny – Ms. Rachel Crosby who kind of adopted him when she found that his own single mother left him alone much of the time. So Junior (as he was called) grew up in Nanny’s boarding house, learning the real meaning of life as he witnessed and was part of the many encounters that Nanny had with the numerous people (good and bad) who came in and out of their lives. And Santiago-Hudson doesn’t miss a beat as he brings forth each character from frost-bitten “Numb Finger Pete” to mean ol Dick Johnson (Nanny’s occasional lover) who’d come in drunk and beat or abuse Junior. And one can’t forget “Ol’ Po’ Carl – who suffers from roaches of the liver! And there’s lots of references to food and sometimes the meager morsels available.
From “Sweet Tooth Sam” and his flippin’ tongue, to the rich white folks Junior and Nanny went to visit and all that white snow. Why Santiago-Hudson even takes on the role of a racoon conveying a very funny incident with Nanny.
Nanny had a big heart, taking in anyone who was in need. She sounds like the best therapist anyone could possibly ask for as her understanding of human pain was boundless. As Santiago-Hudson says in the play “Nanny was like the government if it really worked!”
There’s deep emotional content every step of the way, together with a sufficient amount of levity to give one room to breathe. It’s all difficult to digest, if you haven’t lived the experiences – – all these people who had even the smallest impact on the growth and emergence of the magnificent and talented man we now see on the stage.
The cultural divide is great between Black and White America and it’s only through someone else’s eyes and personal stories that we gain the smallest insight into lives divergent from our own.
Lackawanna Blues final extension thru November 12, 2021 www.manhattantheatreclub.com