Eight plays written by black playwrights are scheduled to open on Broadway this fall. That’s twice the number of all the shows by black playwrights that opened on the too-aptly named Great White Way in the five seasons before the pandemic shutdown. So this is a good development, particularly because we’re talking about straight plays and not musicals where black creators have traditionally been given a little more leeway (although only four of them opened during that five-season period).
However to my surprise, my response has been somewhat mixed. Of course I’m happy for the playwrights, be they newcomers like Keenan Scott II, the author of the poetry-driven Thoughts of a Colored Man, and Douglas Lyon, who created the family comedy Chicken & Biscuits, or seasoned vets like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose wistful memory play Lackawanna Blues I saw this week, and Lynn Nottage, the only female playwright to have won two Pulitzers, who is gearing up three shows for this season (the Michael Jackson musical MJ, an opera version of her 2003 play Intimate Apparel and a brand new work Clyde’s).
But I also feel uncomfortable that these shows are getting their shot at a time when many people are still skittish about the idea of sitting among strangers in an enclosed theater. Producers aren’t releasing grosses this fall but word-of-mouth suggests that the shows aren’t selling out. I worry that this will be misused as evidence that black shows can’t do well on Broadway.
And to be honest, I’m also uncomfortable about sharing some of these stories with people who aren’t black. I haven’t yet seen Thoughts of a Colored Man but I can’t help noticing that while many white critics are praising its insights into black manhood, some black critics have pointed out that its portrayal of black men doesn’t fit at all with their lived experience. “All the talk just adds up to a collection of tropes,” wrote the New Yorker’s critic Vinson Cunningham. “This ‘colored man’ kept thinking, Speak for yourself.”
I didn’t have any trouble identifying with Santiago-Hudson’s tribute to his beloved foster mother and the metaphorical village of people who helped her raise him and who are all commemorated in Lackawanna Blues, a show Santiago-Hudson first performed at the Public Theater in 2001.
Called Nanny by most everyone in the eponymous factory town in upstate New York where she lived, Santiago-Hudson’s foster mother ran a boarding house that catered to and cared for the physically and emotionally crippled, the kind of people who today end up in homeless shelters or on street corners. As Santiago-Hudson tells it, “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.”
A Tony-winner for best featured actor in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and a Tony-nominated director for the 2017 revival of Wilson’s Jitney (click here to read more about him) Santiago-Hudson has directed himself here and plays all the roles, assisted only by guitarist Junior Mack who provides the blues underscoring.
The result is a virtuosic performance, with Santiago-Hudson switching effortlessly from one of some 20 characters to another. It's a feat that's all the more impressive because Santiago-Hudson has been plagued by a back injury that caused him to miss some performances early in the run, although there was no trace of that as he nimbly scampered around the stage at my matinee.
But I particularly appreciated the memories he shared. Like Santiago-Hudson, I grew up in a tight-knit black community in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the unemployment rate hovered around 4% and black men, even those without much education, could find good-paying jobs. Families who had moved north for that work still hung onto the folkways of their southern or Caribbean roots.
I knew men who, like the characters in the play, went by colorful nicknames like Suitcase, Shoebrush and Little Bill. My mother hosted off-the-books card games and sold fried chicken dinners and fish sandwiches to make a few extra dollars just like Nanny does in the show. And I often watched neighbors calm violent outbursts by men who had been damaged in war or maltreated in prison or otherwise battered by racism without calling in the police.
So Lackawanna Blues left me feeling nostalgic but also protective of its characters, be they the malaprop-spewing old guy who complains of “roaches of the liver” or the hot-tempered boxer who knocks out the teeth of his wife. These are people who can so easily be reduced to stereotypes and I winced a little as the white audience members seated around me laughed at the words of the old guy and shook their heads at the behavior of the boxer.
This creates a dilemma for me. I want to urge everyone to see the show, which has just been extended through Nov. 12, because it’s a good one. And I also want to encourage them to enjoy it because it’s an entertaining show.
But if you do go, I hope you will take a few minutes to think about the real people who inspired its stories because they weren’t jokes or morality tales or one-dimensional stereotypes but flesh-and-blood people who despite the odds against them came together, supported one another and helped produce the likes of Ruben Santiago-Hudson and me.