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'Lackawanna Blues' at the Mark Taper Forum

Chris Thomas King and Ruben Santiago-Hudson | Craig Schwartz

Lackawanna Blues: "a magical, musical reminiscence," the Mark Taper Forum program promises.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson is the writer, director, and sole performer of this imaginative, character-driven tale. Accompanying him on stage is typically Chris Thomas King (though in this performance I had the pleasure of watching Daryl Darden) on guitar. The original music featured in the production was composed by Bill Sims Jr., who passed away this year and who this show is dedicated to.

This is not the first time Santiago-Hudson has performed Lackawanna Blues. It originally premiered at The Public Theater in New York in 2001, where it was produced by George C. Wolfe and directed by Loretta Greco. Eighteen years later and Santiago-Hudson has taken the directorial reins himself.

After seeing the show, it only made sense to me that Santiago-Hudson is now his own director. The characters and storytelling are so deeply personal. Were another person to impose their direction, it might have cost the audience some intimacy, a trait this rendition is filled to the brim with.

Lackawanna Blues is about a young boy (Santiago-Hudson) growing up in Lackawanna, New York under the wing of an apartment manager named Miss Rachel, who he affectionately refers to as Nanny. Nanny was known to take in strays. This introduced the young Santiago-Hudson to a wide array of characters. Santiago-Hudson embodied each and every one of these characters with such acute attention to detail that I felt as if I was watching a cast of about 15 people.

The script is funny, heartbreaking, and delightfully meandering. We learn, through Nanny, that kindness and strength are often synonymous. We learn, through a young Santiago-Hudson, what a strong role model can do for a curious child. We are reminded that everyone needs a little bit of help.

Throughout the simultaneously intricate and ease-filled character work that Santiago-Hudson hand delivers the audience on a platter, we are treated to the sounds of Darden on guitar that are both jazzy and nostalgic. Santiago-Hudson periodically chimes in on the harmonica and there is nothing lovelier.

While Santiago-Hudson is tirelessly and beautifully taking on characters throughout the entirety of the show, I would be remiss to fail to mention the way in which Darden listened to and took in his counterpart–so candid, genial, and present.

Lackawanna Blues is a master class in what it means to embody characters. Santiago-Hudson is an artistic powerhouse. The stage is minimally set save for a jagged brick wall that crawls upstage and a lone fan that spins lazily above the two men performing. As an audience member, I didn't need anything else. Darden and Santiago-Hudson provided the rest and then some.

Lackawanna Blues is playing at the Mark Taper Forum until April 21.


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