Openly gay African-American playwright and director George C. Wolfe has created a heartwarming, if uneven, multi-character drama with his movie adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one-man show Lackawanna Blues.
After more than ten years on the police drama Law & Order, the under-utilized and exceptionally talented S. Epatha Merkerson steps out as Nanny, a.k.a. Rachel, a woman who operates a rooming house in Lackawanna, New York during the 1950s. The house is home to a cross-section of boarders, including some of society’s outcasts, such as recent parolees, the mentally infirm and African American soldiers returning from war, as well as people just struggling to make their way in the world.
It is also renowned for being a gathering place, and during a party in 1956, at the beginning of the movie, a baby boy is born to Ruben (Jimmy Smits) and Alean (Carmen Ejogo). Their relationship is short-lived and Nanny, who has become attached to the young Ruben Jr. (Marcus Carl Franklin), offers to provide him with a place to live and to take over raising and caring for him.
This central bond, which spans many years, is where Lackawanna Blues is at its most compelling and touching. Nanny and Junior are a comfort and a source of strength to each other, and it is a pleasure to observe their interactions, and the development of their connection.
Somewhat less consistent is the presentation of the various tenants in the rooming house. Some are more fully realized than others, such as the butch lesbian Ricky (Adina Porter), who is accepted by the residents and never seems to be treated any differently by anyone. There is also the slightly off-kilter Pauline (Macy Gray), who is jealous of any woman who gives her man the eye, and carries a straight razor to make her point.
Bill (Terence Dashon Howard), Nanny’s spouse who is several years her junior, is the most well-formed adult male character, and watching him evolve from unfaithful and uncaring husband, to being fully invested in his life with Nanny and Junior, is a refreshing portrayal. Mr. Paul (the brilliant Jeffrey Wright of Angels In America renown), one of the more minor characters, also made an impact with the personal story he conveys to Junior.
In a one-man show, where everything is self-contained, dropping in characters was probably a way to display Santiago-Hudson’s acting skills. Unfortunately, in the movie, where the characters are more fleshed out, they suffer from not being better woven into the plot. On the whole, however, it is Merkerson’s performance that gives Lackawanna Blues its voice, and it is a wonder to behold.
Lackawanna Blues is now available on DVD