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A woman of love, fortitude

In 'Lackawanna Blues,' an actor pays tribute to his remarkable 'Nanny.'

May 24, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Her boarders called her "Mother"; Ruben Santiago- Hudson called her "Nanny." She was goodness, patience, generosity and don't-mess-with-me strength in one incredible package.

Santiago-Hudson, best-known for his Broadway role as Canewell in August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," pays tribute to her in his solo show "Lackawanna Blues," named after his hometown of Lackawanna, N.Y. On tour after an Obie Award-winning run in New York, he performs through Sunday at the Cerritos Center.

Santiago-Hudson's boyhood home is in the news nowadays as the hard-luck steel town where Arab immigrants have been approached by terrorist operatives, culminating in the recent guilty pleas of a group known as the "Lackawanna Six." But in the late '50s and '60s, Lackawanna was a place of opportunity for poor families moving up from the South. Looking back, the actor, 46, recalls how Rachel "Nanny" Crosby watched over many of these arrivals, providing clothes, food or comfort where needed. She also cared for and, in essence, raised young Santiago-Hudson when his parents couldn't.

Accompanied by the mood-setting guitar work of Bill Sims Jr., Santiago-Hudson re-creates more than 20 Lackawanna residents with nicknames like Numb-Fingered Pete and James Hell. The characters, in turn, remember Nanny through what she did for them. The animal kingdom pays homage too. Nanny looked after maimed or abandoned creatures, including a motherless raccoon that eventually became a pest. Santiago-Hudson slips into its furry skin to show it sitting up on its hind legs, with its front paws outstretched as if in supplication as Nanny reluctantly shoos it back into the wild.

Santiago-Hudson plays a mean harmonica and sings the blues in a luscious baritone. But his chief gift is as a mimic who, under Loretta Greco's direction, shifts effortlessly among his characters.

His most vivid characterization is Nanny herself as she calmly stares down much larger men who get on her bad side. One of these is a brute whose battered wife has fled into Nanny's care. "You got to get through me to get to her," Nanny says quietly. Her face is serene, but there's a firmness there that he'd be a fool to mess with.

Later, when Nanny declares "they made women sturdy in 1905," we can't help but agree.

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