‘Lackawanna Blues’: Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s ‘vibrant’ play and performance are a ‘master class’

Twenty years after Ruben Santiago-Hudson first brought the town of Lackawanna, New York to life Off-Broadway, his autobiographical play “Lackawanna Blues” has arrived on Broadway. The solo show features playwright and director Santiago-Hudson inhabiting 25 different characters from the steeltown in the 1950s as he brings the memorable figures of his childhood to life. At the center of the play is Rachel Crosby, or “Nanny,” the boarding-house proprietor who takes these unforgettable characters under her wing. The play opened on Oct. 7 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

“Lackawanna Blues” marks Santiago-Hudson’s first Broadway performance in nearly a decade. He last starred on Broadway in “Stick Fly” (2011) and won a Tony Award for his featured role in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (1996). In recent years, he has gravitated toward directing works on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for his mounting of Wilson’s “Jitney” (2017). He will also helm Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” later this season.

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Critics certainly appreciated Santiago-Hudson’s return to the boards. Maya Phillips (New York Times) deems the play a Critic’s Pick, calling it “tender and vibrant” and a “winsome performer’s master class in storytelling” featuring a performance of “expert prowess.” Phillips appreciates that in Santiago-Hudson’s effort to bring “a whole town to life,” he portrays all of its inhabitants “with tenderness and empathy, even the brutal ones who did wrong.” She also credits his on-stage accompanist, guitarist Junior Mack.

Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) offers a similarly positive assessment, giving the play four-out-of-five stars. He says the play works as “a gentle and generous tribute” to Nanny, and like Phillips he highlights how Santiago-Hudson embodies all of the folks from his past “without judgment or condescension.” “There is nothing revolutionary about ‘Lackawanna Blues,’ but it is a loving and skillful evocation of a formidable Black woman and the community she was able to create,” Feldman writes, concluding, “It satisfies a hunger that Broadway seldom serves.”

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“Lackawanna Blues” will likely compete at next year’s Tony Awards as a revival because of the “classics rule,” which states that a play that has never appeared on Broadway but is considered by the nominating committee to be a well-established piece in the American repertoire will compete as a revival. At the moment there are five indisputable revivals slated for the season: “Plaza Suite,” “American Buffalo,” “Take Me Out,” “The Skin of our Teeth,” and “Macbeth.” In addition to “Lackawanna,” two other productions will more than likely be deemed eligible as revivals based on the classics rule: Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” and Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.”

Regardless of where “Lackawanna” competes, the play seems competitive for at least a nomination for its star. While playing multiple characters doesn’t always translate to awards success – think back to Alan Cumming’s Tony snub when he played the many roles of “Macbeth” in 2013 – such bravura performances have won Tony Awards in the past, including in the Best Actor category for Jefferson Mays, who portrayed about 40 different characters in Doug Wright’s one-person play “I Am My Own Wife” (2004). Julie Harris and Lily Tomlin similarly won Tonys in Best Actress for tackling multiple parts in one-person plays “The Belle of Amherst” (1977) and “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” (1986), respectively.

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The play has already proven itself popular with awards bodies. The Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater earned him a Drama Desk nomination for Solo Performance in 2001. Four years later, an HBO television movie adaptation of the play directed by George C. Wolfe earned seven Emmy nominations, including Best TV Movie and Directing. The film won two awards, in Casting and in Best Actress for S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Nanny; Merkerson also took home the SAG Award and Golden Globe for her performance.

The one obstacle facing Santiago-Hudson and the play is its very limited fall run. Performances are slated to end on Oct. 31, closing almost six months before some of these other contenders even open. The timing may give an edge to performers in “American Buffalo,” “Take Me Out,” and “The Minutes,” plus the likes David Morse (“How I Learned to Drive”) and Daniel Craig (“Macbeth”), as all of these shows open in April 2022. Even the actors from “The Lehman Trilogy,” which opens this month, could have a time advantage because the play runs through January. The coronavirus pandemic and the elongated 2019-2020 Tony season proved that the Tony nominating committee has a very good memory, though, and with such excellent reviews, Santiago-Hudson will no doubt remain memorable to them come the spring.

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