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Staging the Sounds of Blues

Creator Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Musician Chris Thomas King Discuss the Music of ‘Lackawanna Blues’

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L-R: Chris Thomas King and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Music has always been the great bookmark of my life to tell me where I was and what I was doing, said Tony® Award-winning actor and Lackawanna Blues creator Ruben Santiago-Hudson. When I had been telling people about this incredible upbringing, I knew I couldn’t tell it without music.

That upbringing is chronicled in Lackawanna Blues (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum March 5 – April 21, 2019), which follows the people who lived in the boarding house Santiago-Hudson called home as a child in 1960s Lackawanna, New York. Santiago-Hudson—who also wrote and directed the show—embodies over 20 characters, from lost souls to the boarding house owner, Nanny, who ultimately raised him.

The jukebox in the boarding house was on from when I woke up in the morning to when I went to bed, remembered Santiago-Hudson. At times that jukebox was putting groceries on our table because people were putting quarters in it all day long.

When Lackawanna Blues first premiered at The Public Theater in 2001, blues legend Bill Sims Jr. performed the music he’d composed alongside Santiago-Hudson. Over 15 years later, Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist and composer Chris Thomas King (who has scored music for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Ray) steps into the musician role at the Taper, with the help of Santiago-Hudson on harmonica. The music not only captures the essence of Santiago-Hudson’s youth but also highlights a significant period in our nation’s history.

The music in Lackawanna Blues is a major character in the play, explained King, who never leaves the stage during the show’s 80-minute duration. Nearly every character that Ruben conjures has his or her own musical theme. The blues guitar symbolizes and provides the soundtrack of the great Negro migration from the rural South to urban industrialization of Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Lackawanna. The score gets energized and urban—as the Delta Blues did in the 1950s—during a bawdy foot-stomping scene. Then, in the third act, it becomes reflective and hopeful.

Initially, King was brought on as an understudy but was suddenly thrust into the full role of music performer, he said, when Sims passed away on the same day King arrived in New York for rehearsals. Together, Santiago-Hudson and King explored Sims’ brilliant score in-depth, finding moments where King could intertwine his own creative voice via additional compositions.

Although I’ve scored movies and documentaries, this is my first foray into major live theatre, said King. What has been most striking to me, however, is Ruben’s harmonica playing. I’ve performed and recorded with some of the great harp players such as James Cotton of the legendary Muddy Waters band. Ruben can hold his own on just about any juke joint stage, which adds another layer of authenticity. Ruben’s harmonica soloing adds an exclamation point to the blues of Lackawanna Blues!

The end result is a true melding of three great artists/musicians. When Ruben and I perform the bittersweet closing number, added King, Bill Sims’ spirit is there along with all the colorful characters from Nanny’s boarding house.

In honor of Sims’ life and legacy, Santiago-Hudson has dedicated his performance of Lackawanna Blues to the original composer. But he also welcomes the opportunity for a new collaboration. King has an opportunity to show me something I haven’t seen before, said Santiago-Hudson. Plus, audiences get to experience the combined brilliance of Bill Sims and the brilliance of Chris Thomas King.

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