The most important person in this tribute never even sets foot on stage – for this is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s memorial to Rachel Crosby, the tough, tender, cross-at-your-own-risk, larger-than-life woman who raised him. Besides his obvious love and respect from this indomitable woman, Santiago-Hudson gives the audience an intimate peek at the black community of Lackawanna in the 1950’s. This upstate New York industrial town has its share of odd and wonderfully interesting and unforgettable folks, people who left an indelible impression on a young, impressionable boy as he grew into manhood.
LACKAWANNA BLUES is the shared project of Bill Sims, Jr., musician and composer extraordinaire, and Santiago-Hudson, raconteur, writer, and talented musician in his own right. Initially performed in 2003 by Santiago-Hudson – the man with the stories, memories, and gently sobbing harmonica – and Sims – the tender throaty guitar backing up tales sad and funny. Sims recently died – but his melodies and throbbing guitar will live on – currently in the person of talented Chris Thomas King, a New Orleans blues guitarist, composer, and actor.
When Nanny discovers that four-year-old Ruben has been left alone by his single mom, she takes him in without a blink – just as she’s become the mother and savior for so many lost souls who live in her rooming houses. The Statue of Liberty call out to “the tired…poor…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…the homeless, tempest-tossed,” but Nanny did her one better by becoming an integral part of the lives of those around her – the disenfranchised, handicapped, confused, and completely nuts. People like Ol’ Po Carl, a former Negro League baseball player who had to give up whiskey because of “roaches of the liver” and Numb Finger Peter, who lost his fingers to frostbite after falling asleep in the snow. But still managed to get involved in “the fight of the century” with one-legged Lemuel Taylor, rescued from a mental hospital.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson proves to be a gripping story teller, but also a fantastic mime and a musician able to give the harmonica its own special voice. LACKAWANNA BLUES is a not-to-be-missed catalog of the customs of an entire community (wilted lettuce and all), what makes life special, and how day-to-day events can form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s poignant, funny, and may bring a tear to your eye.
Michael Carnahan’s scenic design sets the mood, and Santiago-Hudson and Chris Thomas King take it from there. With a flick of the wrist, the two make the audience part of the landscape, no longer observers but participants in a history that may never be repeated.
LACKAWANNA BLUES runs through April 21, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. on Sundays. Added 6:30 p.m. Sunday performances in place of 2 p.m. performances on April 14 and April 21. No performances on Tuesday, 3/19, Wednesday, 3/20, Thursday, 3/21, and Friday 3/22. No 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, 4/16. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $30 to $109. For information and reservations, call 213-972-7231 or go online.