Arts & Theatre

The abundant rhythms of ‘Lackawana Blues’ at the Mark Taper Forum

The revival of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s musically driven one-man show has great rhythm but lacks the full weight of the blues.

"Lackawanna Blues" is a one-man musical reflection written, directed and performed by the multi-talented Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Originally produced in 2001 by the Joseph Papp Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, is revived at the Mark Taper Forum.

The production takes place during the 1950s in Santiago-Hudson's hometown of Lackawanna, New York, where he lovingly shares experiences from an integral part of his life's journey. He shares this part of his life with Nanny (Rachel Crosby), his stalwart surrogate mother and the fierce caretaker of the Lackawanna Black community. The epicenter of their story is 32 Watson Street, Nanny's boarding house for the troubled, misunderstood and undesirable.

"Nanny knew how to take fragments and make them whole," Ruben Santiago-Hudson writes about the woman he idolized for her selflessness.

Santiago-Hudson stands in soulful silhouette in the doorway of the boarding house where he begins his seamless invocation of the twenty-odd characters he embodies, the "fragments" that Nanny valiantly worked to make whole. Colorful characters such as Shirley, Poo-Pie, Cock-Eye, and Little Sunny all tell some horrific and some hilarious stories all with the common thread of Nanny being their rock through it all.

With a set made into an intimate blues club by set designer Michael Carnahan, awash in cool, moody purples and reds by lighting designer Jen Schriever, Santiago-Hudson has the ideal backdrop to hold us captive with his storytelling.

The masterful original compositions of the late Bill Sims Jr. and the dynamic onstage musical support of Chris Thomas King on the blues guitar provides evocative notes that buoy Santiago-Hudson's virtuosic performance. Notes of inclusion, compassion, loyalty, redemption, and survival that Nanny pitch are perfectly plucked throughout her life.

Although Santiago-Hudson's performance deftly grooves with the rhythmic nuance of each of character's eccentric traits, he doesn't allow the same room for the weight of their blues to play out on stage. There is an abundance of grievous abuse, unspeakable violence, debilitating abandonment, and profound loss in the writing. However, the low notes of the trauma his character's experience fill the stage for no more than a few bars before it's safely redirected to another languorously humorous note. This takes the audience off the hook of feeling the pain of the long, traumatic history of Black people in America that has manifested in Nanny's fragmented flock in the form of mental illness, disfigurement, and severe physical ailments.

What is rhythm without the blues? Yes, rhythm brings the world much needed joyful grooves but it should be met with the blues to bring it into an appreciative stark relief.

Overall, Ruben Santiago-Hudson's "Lackawanna Blues" is an entertaining, endearing and inspiring love letter to his Nanny, whose life of indelible service deserves to be spotlighted on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum.

"Lackawanna Blues" runs now through April 21st. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased here.

You can contact Contributing Writer Aja Houston at alhousto@usc.edu or follow her on Twitter. Aja Houston is an MFA Dramatic Writing Candidate ’19 at University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts.