“Nanny was like the government if it really worked.” That pretty much sums up the story of Nanny, the heart of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s 2001 autobiographical spoken ballad currently playing at the Taper. The story is a loving and humorous homage to a woman with innate goodness and proof that with the right support and encouragement someone can overcome the bleakest of backgrounds.
Fed up with a white family’s patronizing of her, Nanny left for Lackawanna New York and established several boarding houses, filling them with lost and broken souls. One year-old Santiago-Hudson and his drug addict mother washed up at her door and when Nanny perceived that the child was not being cared for she swept in and became his mother figure for the rest of his life. His birth mother faded away.
Nanny was much more than the mother figure for one little boy. She was a one-woman support system for society’s flotsam, dispensing nourishment, understanding, wisdom, and no-nonsense common-sense to the ones lucky enough to end up in her boarding house. Santiago-Hudson lovingly portrays more than twenty of those characters accompanied by Chris Thomas King’s soulful guitar, and occasionally by the harmonica he, himself, wields There are times he is gently mocking, in a way that would be considered racist if portrayed by a non-African/American. In the current world of political correctness, it is a torturous path to navigate.
Santiago-Hudson is primarily an actor and director. Amongst his awards are a Tony and an Obie and he is considered the consummate interpreter of August Wilson’s work. “Lackawanna Blues” is the only play Ruben Santiago-Hudson has written. Several of the twenty plus characters he sketches could easily become fodder for a piece featuring them separately.
One senses his writing of this 2001 monologue was propelled by the need to tell the story of an exceptional woman and his sadness over her death. What comes through is the beauty of her life. It is mellow and charming and the hour and a half slips by enjoyably. These are the blues of precious memory, not a wailing of wrongs and losses.