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Review | ‘Lackawanna’ makes for moving monologue

Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Technically speaking, anyone can go out and create a solo show about their childhood. The animated TV sitcom “Family Guy” once made fun of this idea by forcing Brian and Lois to sit through a friend’s awful solo show about life “growing up in Brooklyn” with “some real characters…like Frank the mailman,” which they later described as “a piece of self-indulgent crap.”

Then again, there are those like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who uses the memoir monologue as an opportunity for finely-crafted storytelling and a dignified tribute to community, family, and African-American identity in “Lackawanna Blues,” a 20-year-old piece of theater that is finally making its Broadway debut. 

Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winning actor, writer, and director who has long been associated with the dramas of August Wilson, first performed “Lackawanna Blues” Off-Broadway in 2001 at the Public Theater. In 2005, the monologue was adapted into an HBO film in which Santiago-Hudson was joined by a starry ensemble cast including S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael K. Williams, Jimmy Smits, and Terrence Howard. 

Manhattan Theatre Club’s new mounting of “Lackawanna Blues” marks the first Broadway show to emerge from any of New York’s not-for-profit theater companies (which rely primarily on local subscription-based audiences) since the shutdown. Its opening night was originally scheduled for last week but got postponed twice due to a back injury that Santiago-Hudson sustained during preview performances. 

Against a simple brick wall backdrop, Santiago-Hudson pays homage to Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, who served as his surrogate mother during his childhood in the 1950s in the upstate industrial town of Lackawanna, New York. In addition to “Nanny,” Santiago-Hudson also portrays the various eccentrics who resided in her boardinghouse. 

Tough, loving, quick-witted, understanding, and entrepreneurial, “Nanny” was a host, caretaker, and all-around guardian angel for numerous African-American individuals, many of whom had serious physical and mental disabilities and painful pasts. As Santiago-Hudson puts it, “Nanny was like the government – if it really worked.” 

Santiago-Hudson is joined onstage by guitarist Junior Mack, who plays blues music that is intricately interwoven with the text. (The music is by the late Bill Sims Jr., Santiago-Hudson’s original collaborator.) Santiago-Hudson occasionally joins in on the harmonica. 

The writing, which is more a series of scattered anecdotes and memories than a traditional narrative, mixes retelling the characters’ sorrowful pasts with lively comic touches, leading to earnest character portraits that are affecting and involving. 

Santiago-Hudson displays remarkable finesse and ease as he switches back and forth between portraying different characters (such as during a confrontation between “Nanny” and his unstable birth mother) or between direct narration to the audience and extended character monologue.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com. Through Oct. 31.

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