I wish all of you reading this could have had the opportunity to know my grandparents, and to experience, even for the briefest of moments, the world as I saw it during my childhood. There was always a steady flow of immigrants from rural Virginia passing through the doors of my grandparents' Connecticut house, staying as extended guests as they carved out new lives for themselves in the North. My great-uncle Douglas would chain-smoke while regaling us with tales of his exploits during World War II, slowly getting drunker and drunker on the back porch. Late-night party jams with my Uncle Tommy and his band covering Jimi Hendrix songs would keep the neighbors up all night. The scent of nappy black hair burnt straight with a hot comb at Mrs. McPhee's beauty shop, the smell of catfish frying on the stove at Pat Walton's house—all were part of my day-to-day life.
Based on the award-winning play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lackawanna Blues—which premieres this week on HBO—feels at times like memories torn from my own past. Although the autobiographical script is set in upstate New York in the 1960s, it conveys the same sense of transplanted Southern black community that I called home during the 1970s. It is a brilliant film, filled with the sort of emotional resonance that allows the diverse cast of eccentrics to come to life.
The story unfolds in Lackawanna, N .Y., where Nanny (S. Epatha Merkerson) runs a boarding house populated by societal misfits including her much younger husband Bill (Terrence Howard), a hard drinker who has trouble remaining faithful. Nanny comes to be the caregiver for young Ruben (Marcus Franklin), who grows up in the house at 32 Wasson Ave. surrounded by a dysfunctional family of alcoholics, ex-cons and lost souls who all live together under one roof.
Brimming with top-notch performances, Lackawanna Blues has some of the best performances by black actors since Tim Reid's underrated Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored. Merkerson is simply brilliant as Nanny, serving not only as the foundation of the story, but as a cinematic representation of all the black women who have struggled for centuries to hold their families and communities together. The rest of the cast also rises to the occasion, giving performances that live and breathe beyond the confines of a television set. And even though the film is populated with an ensemble cast, some of whom appear only in a scene or two, even the most minor, transient characters emerge as finely detailed portraits.
Directed by George Wolfe, Lackawanna Blues has a rich cultural vibrancy that comes alive with the sort of authenticity found in the writing of James Baldwin, the music of Stevie Wonder and the paintings of Ernest Barnes. This one of those unique glimpses of black life in America that is infused with a complex humanity seldom seen in film or television.
Lackawanna Blues, 8 pm Saturday, Feb. 12, on HBO.