- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Actor-writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson is like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein — both were born into great material.

Among other things, they had larger-than-life mothers. Miss Wasserstein’s, a former June Taylor Dancer, was flamboyant, show-bizzy and fierce with outrageous love. Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s adoptive mother, known as “Nanny,” was a woman whose heart was as vast as the Lake Erie shoreline hugging their hometown of Lackawanna, N.Y. With humor, firmness and bottomless largesse, Nanny raised Mr. Santiago-Hudson and either took in or otherwise helped out most of Lackawanna’s citizenry at one time or another.

The steady influence of Nanny’s love and generosity on Mr. Santiago-Hudson and everyone she met is the subject of the autobiographical “Lackawanna Blues,” and a more bountiful tribute to motherhood cannot be found.

The Studio’s Mead Theatre just finished performances of “The Play About the Baby,” which spewed Edward Albee’s trademark luscious poison about maternal instincts, or the lack thereof. Now, the space has been transformed into a place of gratitude, forgiveness, and rippling affection.

Mr. Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award for his performance as Canewell in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” here conjures such a hearty image of Nanny it’s as if she were before us, shooing us into her boardinghouse and fixing us a plate of chicken feet and dumplings. Accompanied by the sublimely syncopated, finger-picking commentary of master blues guitarist Bill Sims Jr., Mr. Santiago-Hudson doesn’t just tell a story with his voice — he throws his whole body into it.

His morphing into the 20-odd characters of “Lackawanna” is quicksilver magic, never a parody or an impression, more of a delving into that person’s essence. And what characters Mr. Santiago-Hudson has to work with — an African American twist on a Damon Runyon-esque cavalcade of souls.

In the late 1950s, Lackawanna was a postwar boomtown: Blue-collar industries were going strong, and anyone who was upright could find work. Many of these workers found their way to Nanny’s boarding house — oddballs, drunks, the stray former mental patient, itinerant workers and ex-baseball players from the Negro Baseball League. Most of them were good men who were down on their luck and looking to get back on their feet after a stretch in jail.

Prostitutes, battered women, druggies, wanderers, gamblers, WWII veterans, Nanny didn’t judge them or condemn them. She just gave them fresh linens, good food and help when they needed it. She also was known for what today might be termed “crisis intervention”: When one woman comes to Nanny after a knife fight, she touches the stitches and says “There are 64 reasons to find yourself another man.”

Certainly, Mr. Santiago-Hudson could have grown up in a more “proper” household, but he couldn’t have found one more colorful and loving. And he soaked it all up like a sponge. He gleefully recounts a fight between a one-legged man whose tongue darts out like a lizard and a boarder named “Numb-Fingers,” who lost most of his digits one night when he passed out drunk in the snow. And Mr. Santiago-Hudson can still re-create the malapropian conversational style of Ol’ Po’ Carl, who complains he has roaches (cirrhosis) of the liver. “I can feel something crawling all up inside me,” Carl notes, and you half-believe he’s right.

“Lackawanna Blues” has a loose, spontaneous flow, with Mr. Santiago-Hudson picking up on the quickness and energy of the audience, who at the Sunday matinee roared with laughter when he described one boarder as a “Tootsie Roll Frankenstein.” He saves his most eloquent and true language for his descriptions of Nanny, who, for all her good deeds, was no saint. She hosted after-hour gambling parties, liked a glass of liquor now and then (afterward she’d eat a whole chicken, suck the marrow from the bones and promptly fall asleep) and had a fatal attraction for her second husband, an incorrigible ladies man named Bill.

Nanny wasn’t a perfect woman, merely a great one. And you come away from “Lackawanna Blues” secure in the knowledge that her legacy lives on in Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s warm heart and way with words.

****

WHAT: “Lackawanna Blues” by Ruben Santiago-Hudson

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through June 22.

TICKETS: $30.25 to $44.25

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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