With a rich blend of memory, eulogy and comedy, Tony Award-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one man play, “Lackawanna Blues,” delighted the opening night audience last Friday at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Loosely based on Santiago-Hudson’s unconventional childhood in Lackawanna, NY, during the 1950s, the play is a tribute to the renowned generosity of his adopted mother, “Nanny,” at her boarding house. With a willingness to take in anyone from the eccentric to the criminal, Nanny’s boarding house became a community institution with Friday night fish frys, poker games, hot soup and cornbread for anyone in need. Regulars included WWII veterans, victims of domestic violence, vagrants, and arm-chair philosophers. At the center of this eclectic scene was the young Santiago Hudson to take it all in.
“Lackawanna Blues” is his adaptation of this experience. During the one and a half hour play, Santiago-Hudson transforms himself into a remarkable array of more than 20 characters, including Ol’ Po’ Carl, Numb Finger Pete, and Sweet Tooth Sam. Wearing the same simple shirt and slacks throughout, he renders men and women alike, including Nanny, with remarkable ease. At one point, Santiago-Hudson is a lovelorn young man, at another, a wizened old matron with an arthritic walk and a rumbling cough. His energy as an actor infuses the play with vitality and creates vivid imagery without the aid of costumes or props.
To accompany Santiago-Hudson’s evocative acting, widely acclaimed blues artist Bill Sims Jr. provides original music. His acoustic guitar energizes the play with rhythm without overpowering it. At several points, Santiago-Hudson joined Sims with a harmonica to create a lively blues duo that had the audience enthusiastically clapping in tempo.
From start to finish, the audience was responsive as Santiago-Hudson related his tales of desperation and heartbreak, friendship and family. Just minutes into the first scene, waves of laughter filled the beautifully gilded and historic Geary Theater. By the last lines, some wiped tears from their eyes as the audience leapt to a standing ovation.
The only disappointment was the austere set, which seemed poorly integrated into the overall production. Composed of an electric blue floor, two matching columns and a hanging rectangle, the set made an oddly impersonal backdrop for such intimate story-telling.
At its core, “Lackawanna Blues” is about generosity. With his vivid collection of stories, Santiago-Hudson has assembled a wonderful tribute to his adopted mother that is both touching and entertaining. Go see it to laugh as Santiago-Hudson shakes across the stage in an imitation of the Friday night “dog” dancing that went on after too much whiskey. Go see it to remember a good woman in your own life as Santiago-Hudson impersonates the benevolent Nanny. Above all, go see it to be charmed and seduced by the colorful world of a Lackawanna boarding house-a place of inspiring compassion.