Taking my seat during the opening night of Lackawanna Blues, two women named Pam and Sally sat down next to me. They started talking about their friend, writer, performer and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. They shared with me how Pam is Ruben’s publicist, and that the first reading of Lackawanna Blues was in the living room of Sally’s home. Later I discovered I was sitting next to actress Sally Struthers and her publicist and good friend Pam Sharp.
Ruben’s deeply personal musical montage began with a spotlight shining on Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist, composer, and performer Chris Thomas King. While strumming his guitar, another spot illuminates Ruben standing in front of a brick boarding house with the number 32 above the doorway.
For the next 85 minutes, he reminisces about childhood growing up with Miss Rachel also known as ’Nanny,’ while growing up in Lackawanna, New York. He opens “I didn’t know what love was until I had Nanny’s cooking.”
While returning to his roots, he re-enacts over 20 characters that include a couple of drunks, a few mentally challenged individuals and some physically scarred characters. Ruben’s smooth storytelling is enhanced by his pleasing voice, fluid movements and exquisite harmonica playing.
‘Nanny’ grew up on a tobacco farm in Virginia and moved to Lackawanna in 1956. It was a fertile time, and she invited and brought families to her new town to help them succeed. She bought and opened her own boarding house and charged tenants $30 a week.
Ruben lived in one of the rooms with his mentally ill mother who abandons him in the evenings. ‘Nanny’ notices this and becomes his loving surrogate mother. The audience grew quiet as Ruben shares his stories about how he went everywhere with her.
Sitting next to me Struthers rich laugh was contagious as we both chuckled and giggled as Ruben describes one of the tenant’s Mr. Taylor. “He was a man who looked like a giant negro iguana.” Mimicking how his tongue jumped in and out of his mouth, the scene grew more poignant when we learn how this man died.
He shares that ‘Nanny’ not only took in down-and-out people, but also a baby raccoon, a pig who lived in the basement, a three-legged German Sheppard, hamsters, and others.
The audience roared again with laughter when he demonstrates the scandalous 1960s ‘dog dance’ that some of the tenants would do in the evening. Interspersed between and during these stories, Ruben would pull out his harmonica and play along with King. At times I looked around the audience and noticed many were moving their heads to the bewitching beat before offering another round of beloved applause.
As ‘Nanny’ develops health issues and is admitted into the hospital, Ruben expresses how he wants to die before she does. He doesn’t want to live without her. Lighting designer Jen Schriever silhouettes Ruben beautifully in this scene, as ‘Nanny’ reassures him that he is a breath of fresh air to her, and they will always be together.
This moving tribute for a wonderful woman born in 1905 is similar to what Ruben dedicates in the Playbill to his creative partner and award-winning music composer Bill Sims Jr. For more than 20 years Sims Jr.’s music was the foundation for everything they did together. When they created Lackawanna Blues, Ruben once told Sims Jr. that he didn’t think he could ever do the show without him. Sims Jr. responded. “I’ll be there. You might not see me, but I’ll be there.” Sadly Sim Jr. passed away this year.
After an enthusiastic standing ovation with screams of “Bravo” being shouted from the audience, Ruben took his bow with tears of joy in his eyes, looked toward the ceiling, pointed up, winked and smiled. I hope he felt Bill’s and maybe even ‘Nanny’s’ presence during the opening night of his show. I sure all felt the pleased presence of everyone in the audience.
This review was featured OnStage March 15, 2019.
Produced by Center Theatre Group, the production runs through April 21, 2019.
The design team includes scenic designer Michael Carnahan, costume designer Karen Perry, lighting designer Jen Schriever, and sound designer Philip G. Allen. The production stage manager is David S. Franklin.
Opens Wednesday, March 13 at 8 p.m. (Previews March 5 through March 12) Runs through April 21, 2019.
Mark Taper Forum
Performance Days and Times:
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Sunday at 1 p.m.
No performance on Mondays.
Exceptions: Added 6:30 p.m. Sunday performances in lieu of a 1 p.m. performance on April 14 and April 21.
No public performances on Tuesday, March 19; Wednesday, March 20; Thursday, March 21 and Friday, March 22.
No 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, April 16.
Run Time and Intermission:
“Lackawanna Blues” runs one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
Ticket Prices: $30 – $109
(Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
or calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772.
Group Sales: 213.972.7231
The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Visit centertheatregroup.org.