Lackawanna Blues is on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre, in previews Sep 14, opening Sep 28, for a limited run to Oct 31, 2021. From $59. manhattantheatreclub.com
The Lackawanna Blues
The story is by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an American actor and playwright of Puerto Rican descent. 🇵🇷
It is a biodrama in which Santiago-Hudson tells and embellishes the story of his own upbringing in Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. Like many of us, Santiago-Hudson was raised by woman who wasn’t his mother.
Lackawanna Blues is the story of Miss Rachel, “Nanny,” the woman who raised the young Ruben. She ran a boarding house, but opened her doors to anyone who needed help. That’s a great woman. Many of us know this strong character from our own neighborhoods. This kind of woman doesn’t just hold together an extended family, she holds together her entire community with nothing but love.
In telling the story, Santiago-Hudson plays over twenty different characters based on the people who came in and out of his and Miss Rachel’s life.
The one-man show premiered at the Public Theater in 2001. It won an OBIE Award special citation, and another OBIE for bluesman Bill Sims Jr’s music. The Public Theater produces a lot of good work that goes on to greatness.
Santiago-Hudson turned the play into an HBO movie in 2005 with different actors playing the various characters. It earned an Emmy nomination. For her work, actress S. Epatha Merkerson won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, an Emmy, and a Screen Actors Guild award.
Blues music plays an important role in the play. Bill Sims Jr. (1949-2019) wrote the soundtrack and used to play it onstage. Junior Mack performs in the Broadway play.
The Blues is the root of most American popular music. It isn’t about being sad. It’s about turning sadness into joy. That’s what we do.
As Latin jazz legend Eddie Palmieri once said at the 92nd Street Y: “The Spaniard brought the African. The African put everyone to dance. In the States, they took away the drum, and we got the Blues.”
We actually got a lot more. From the Blues, we got Gospel, Jazz, Country, Swing, Rock, Salsa, Hip-hop, Reggaeton and Trap. All of this originates in America’s African Diaspora – even American Country music.
“Lackawanna Blues” isn’t just a story about one person, one community, or one place. It’s an American story about how we come together to overcome whatever life throws at us.
Santiago-Hudson’s father was Puerto Rican and his mother was African American. The young man was left to his own devices because his father was always working or looking for work, and his mother had mental health issues. She couldn’t raise a child, but her last name helped Ruben launch his career.
He doesn’t speak Spanish, but he gets it. Santiago-Hudson wrote “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which eloquently tells the jazz story of how the music industry steals the work of Black artists. He didn’t say it, but he sure showed it.
Santiago-Hudson started acting in 1988 in “Coming to America” of all movies. He successfully navigated an acting career in the last thirty years when there have been few opportunities for actors of color. He made it through the maze of being perceived as too Puerto Rican or not Puerto Rican enough, too Black or not Black enough.
Ruben has done a lot of television and Broadway. He is an Emmy nominee, and won a Tony award for acting in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (1996). In 2013 he won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Director and a Direction OBIE for August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.”
It may not have been his natural family, but it has to be said, that Ruben Santiago-Hudson shows all the signs of a good family upbringing. Here’s to Nanny!