The week I caught Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Blues Lackawanna the Twittersphere was in turmoil on the “Bad friend of art”Literary scandal. TLDR: Narcissistic Writer Donates Kidney, Expecting Social Media Glory; writer frenemy writes a satirical story inspired by the incident; the first writer cries out for treason and plagiarism; the second writer claims the artistic license. The pursuits are linked. Everyone looks bad.
I thought about the writer’s ethical responsibility to real people for Blues Lackawanna, which premiered 20 years ago at the Public Theater and is now curtsying on Broadway at Manhattan Theater Club. In it, writer-director Santiago-Hudson plays a few dozen characters he met growing up in the 1950s and 1960s at a boarding house in upstate New York for predominantly black residents. Chief among them is Rachel Crosby, aka Nanny, an iron-willed matriarch who protects neglected children, abused women and broken men.
Who knows how much history is freely embellished or truthfully recalled word for word. Did the schoolboy Ruben write down the stories he heard? Did everything he said happened? Frankly, I don’t care, and these people have long since turned to dust. What matters is that an artist has made a beautiful folk patchwork from childhood memories.
This is a bildungsroman adoption; Santiago-Hudson’s single mother (a bartender) had neither the time nor the resources to raise him properly. So, in tears, she handed over the toddler to Nanny, who made the care and upbringing of the boy her special project. In a subsequent act of heroism, the remarkable woman stood up to a violent black boxer whose battered white wife sought refuge in one of Nanny’s homes. With a change of posture and a rearrangement of the arms, Santiago-Hudson evokes a tense confrontation between the violent pugilist and the resolute nanny.
Tough but graceful, the actor performs dozens of well-etched transformations in 90 minutes, as the residents of Nanny’s house show up to share their stories. There’s Mr. Lemuel Taylor, one-legged, whose tongue goes in and out of his mouth like a lizard. Numb Finger Pete is so named because of the fingers he lost due to frostbite; he and Taylor get into an awkward brawl. Little Paul confesses to the murder of a girlfriend and her lover in a jealous rage, and how in prison he learned to “speak American”. As a child, 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 are told lightly by survivors.
We keep coming back to these wounded but combative men, who must have fascinated and frightened young Ruben. Nanny is at the center of the story, as a surrogate parent who never disappointed our narrator and always believed in him. Although she is portrayed partly as an entrepreneur and partly holy, Nanny has her own weakness: handsome but untrustworthy men. One of them, thief Bill, casually mistreats young Ruben and incurs Nanny’s wrath.
Such a basic storytelling, a collection of vignettes sprinkled with musical passages, could have been presented in a fairly minimal fashion, but MTC wraps Santiago-Hudson’s colorful threads in beautiful packaging. Michael Carnahan’s grandiose proscenium stretches out above 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 is an abundance. Santiago-Hudson isn’t alone on stage: he’s backed by accomplished guitarist Junior Mack, who scratches and worries about Bill Simms’ original blues score, Jr. Santiago-Hudson plays harmonica, moaning and moaning in the air when words are just not enough.
“I wonder when am I going to be called a man?” Santiago-Hudson sings in Big Bill Broonzy’s blues classic. In this wicked and unfair world, her play suggests, it can take more than a lifetime to grow up and claim your dignity.