February 12, 2005
"Lackawanna Blues" was born as a one-man play about a Buffalo, N.Y.-area rooming house on the eve of the civil rights movement, with playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson playing 20 parts.
It was a splendid stage work, winning awards and critical acclaim. But the piece bursts into even more vibrant life as a film, which makes its debut tonight.
Rewritten for the screen by Santiago-Hudson and beautifully mounted by stage director George C. Wolfe, "Blues" is a rollicking, joyous and uplifting look at the world of colorful characters who swirl around the boarding house kept by Rachel (Nanny) Crosby.
As played by S. Epatha Merkerson (Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order"), Crosby is a true force of nature whose goodness, warmth and flamboyant personality leave a mark on everyone she touches.
The person she touches most is Ruben Jr., Santiago-Hudson’s alter ego, played here by the marvelous Marcus Carl Franklin (Broadway’s "Caroline, Or Change") as a boy and Hill Harper ("CSI: NY") as a young man. Crosby raises Ruben Jr. after his parents’ marriage falls apart, and it is she who introduces him to the wisdom and insights of her various boarders.
What makes "Blues" special is that each of those characters — no matter how minor — has been drawn with real verve by Santiago-Hudson. The result is a tapestry of human emotions, a piece that is honest, warm and unashamedly sentimental.
It’s been brought to life by a cast that most filmmakers would die for. "L&O" viewers know the dignity and strength Merkerson brings to Van Buren each week, but "Blues" gives her a magnificent platform on which to display her full range — which she does with gusto.
Franklin is wonderful as young Ruben, and there are rich supporting portraits from Carmen Ejogo ("Boycott"), veteran actor Louis Gossett Jr., singer Macy Gray, Terrence Howard ("Ray") and Jeffrey Wright ("Angels in America").
The smaller parts are filled — in high style — by the likes of Jimmy Smits, Delroy Lindo, Mos Def, Rosie Perez, Liev Schreiber and Patricia Wettig.
"Lackawanna Blues" airs 9 p.m. today on HBO.