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Ruben Santiago-Hudson Makes Music of the Past in ‘Lackawanna Blues’

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Ruben Santiago-Hudson Makes Music of the Past in ‘Lackawanna Blues’
Ruben Santiago – Hudson (front/standing), Junior Mack (back/seated) Marc Franklin

The week I caught Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues the Twittersphere was abuzz over the “Bad Art Friend” literary scandal. TLDR: Narcissistic writer donates a kidney, expecting social-media glory; frenemy writer pens a satirical story inspired by the incident; the first writer cries betrayal and plagiarism; the second writer claims artistic license. Lawsuits follow. Everyone looks bad.

I thought about the ethical responsibility of the writer to real people during Lackawanna Blues, which premiered 20 years ago at the Public Theater and now makes its Broadway bow at Manhattan Theatre Club. In it, writer-director Santiago-Hudson embodies a couple dozen characters he encountered growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in an upstate New York boardinghouse for mostly Black residents. Chief among them is Rachel Crosby, a.k.a. Nanny, an iron-willed matriarch who protects neglected children, abused women, and broken men.

Who knows how much of the story is freely embellished or recalled with verbatim veracity. Did schoolboy Ruben write down the stories he heard? Did everything happen that he says happened? Frankly, I don’t care, and those people have long returned to dust. What matters is that an artist crafted a beautiful folk patchwork from childhood memories.

This is an adoption bildungsroman; Santiago-Hudson’s single mom (a bartender) didn’t have the time or resources to raise him properly. So, tearfully, she surrendered the toddler to Nanny, who made the care and education of the boy her special project. In a later act of heroism, the remarkable woman stood up to an abusive Black boxer whose battered white wife sought refuge at one of Nanny’s houses. With a shift of posture and rearrangement of arms, Santiago-Hudson conjures up a tense standoff between the violent pugilist and the resolute Nanny.

Robust but graceful, the actor effects dozens of sharply etched transformations over the course of 90 minutes, as denizens of Nanny’s house come forward to share their stories. There’s the one-legged Mr. Lemuel Taylor, whose tongue darts in and out of his mouth like a lizard. Numb Finger Pete is so named because of the digits he lost to frostbite; he and Taylor get into an awkward scuffle. Small Paul confesses the murder of a girlfriend and her lover in a jealous rage, and how in prison he learned to “talk American.” As a boy, Mr. Luscious took revenge on a white man for an insult, then hid in a swamp, where he was bitten by a snake and lost an arm. Although the stories reek of injustice and pain, they’re told lightly by the survivors.

We keep returning to these wounded yet pugnacious men, who must have fascinated and frightened young Ruben. Nanny holds the center of the story, as the surrogate parent who never failed our narrator, and always believed in him. Although she’s portrayed as part entrepreneur and part saint, Nanny has her own weakness: good-looking but untrustworthy men. One of them, the philandering Bill, casually mistreats young Ruben and incurs Nanny’s wrath. 

Such basic storytelling, a collection of vignettes peppered with musical passages, could have been presented quite minimally, but MTC wraps Santiago-Hudson’s colorful yarns in a handsome package. Michael Carnahan’s grandly dilapidated proscenium arcs over the stage; Jen Schriever’s lights evoke the ghosts and shadows of yesteryear; Darron L. West’s sound design balances speech and music — of which there’s an abundance. Santiago-Hudson isn’t alone on stage: He’s backed by accomplished guitarist Junior Mack, who strums and frets the original blues score by Bill Simms, Jr. Santiago-Hudson jams along on harmonica, wailing and keening into the air when words just aren’t enough. 

“I wonder when will I get to be called a man?” Santiago-Hudson croons in the blues classic by Big Bill Broonzy. In this mean and unfair world, his play suggests, it can take more than a lifetime to grow up and claim your dignity. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson Makes Music of the Past in ‘Lackawanna Blues’

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Vikings still have ‘bad taste in our mouth’ from playoff loss at San Francisco

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Vikings still have ‘bad taste in our mouth’ from playoff loss at San Francisco

The last time the Vikings were in the playoffs, their season ended with a thud.

On Jan. 11, 2020, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the San Francisco 49ers dominated Minnesota in the divisional round. They sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins six times and held running back Dalvin Cook to a meager 18 yards on nine carries in a resounding 27-10 win.

On Sunday, the Vikings will return to the site of the beatdown. Memories from it linger.

“We have a bad taste in our mouth from that game,’’ said offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Minnesota’s quarterbacks coach in 2020. “That was two years ago; we’ve got a lot of new pieces, a lot of similar pieces, but guys haven’t forgotten that.”

Some of the faces from that game have changed, but many of the key ones have remained the same. The 49ers are still coached by Kyle Shanahan and still have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and defensive end Nick Bosa, who had two of their sacks. Bosa was fined $28,075 by the NFL shortly after that game for a penalized illegal block on tackle Brian O’Neill that the Vikings called a cheap shot.

The Vikings, still coached by Mike Zimmer, have a number of key players remaining on both sides of the ball. That includes Cousins, who threw for just 172 yards a week after rallying the Vikings with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime in a 26-20 playoff upset at New Orleans.

“I remember San Francisco did a great job against us,” Cousins said. “They played a great game and they were the better team that day.”

After the playoff win over the Vikings, the 49ers walloped Green Bay 37-20 at home in the NFC Championship Game and looked primed to win Super Bowl LIV. They led Kansas City 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter before faltering and losing 31-20.

The hangover continued into 2020, when the 49ers went just 6-10. It didn’t help that Garoppolo missed 10 games due to injury.

The Vikings also fell back in 2020, going 7-9.  Each team started this season 3-5 but enters Sunday’s game on a two-game winning streak.

“Two teams that are probably playing their better ball of the year right now,” Shanahan said.

With that in mind, there are playoff implications on the line Sunday. With seven teams making the postseason in the NFC, the Vikings are currently in the No. 6 spot and the 49ers are No. 7. The winner will have a tiebreaker if the teams are deadlocked at the conclusion of the NFL’s first 17-game season.

“It’s an important game,” Zimmer said. “I’m sure they’d say the same thing.”

Zimmer said the 49ers are similar to the team that handled the Vikings in the playoffs on offense and defense. One difference, he said, is a lot more “movement pre-snap” on offense, including sets with stars Deebo Samuel at wide receiver and George Kittle at tight end.

On defense, the biggest difference is DeMeco Ryans, who replaced Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator after he left at the end of last season to become head coach of the New York Jets. The 49ers remain stout on that side of the ball, ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense.

The Vikings, though, have shown continued improvement on offense. Cousins is playing as well as he has in his 10-year career. Second-year wide receiver Justin Jefferson is the most recent NFC Offensive Player of the Week winner after catching eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 34-31 win over the Packers. Cook continues to get better, as well, and hasn’t had many clunkers since the one in his last visit to Levi’s Stadium.

“We put that to bed, but (it’s) always (a challenge) having an opportunity to compete against a good defense, good players that they have over there,” Cook said of his return. “I definitely remember that game, that environment. I know it was a playoff game and different, but their fans get pretty rowdy.”

The Vikings will try to silence the fans with their seventh-ranked offense. But will they be able to stop the 49ers with their defense?

The Vikings rank just No. 28 in the NFL in total defense and on Sunday will be without their four preferred starters on the defensive line. Defensive end Everson Griffen is away from the team after a mental health issue on Wednesday, and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has been ruled out after being placed Tuesday on the COVID-19 reserve list. They join end Danielle Hunter, lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 31, and nose tackle Michael Pierce, on injured reserve with an elbow injury.

“It’s a big advantage for us,” Garoppolo told reporters on Wednesday about Minnesota’s depleted line. “I think, you know, the guys stepping in are no slouches, either. So, we’ve got to be ready for that.”

D.J. Wonnum has stepped in for Hunter, and Armon Watts for Pierce. Sheldon Richardson is expected to man one of the other two open spots. Regardless of who’s playing, the Vikings defense can expect a steady diet of the 49ers’ running game. In their last two games, a 34-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 15 and a 30-10 victory at Jacksonville on Nov. 21, San  Francisco averaged 163.5 yards rushing.

Running back Elijah Mitchell had 91 yards against the Rams. Then, with Mitchell nursing a finger injury, the versatile Samuel carried eight times for 79 yards against the Jaguars.

“They run the ball really, really well,” Zimmer said.

When Garoppolo throws, Samuel is the primary target. Samuel, who sometimes lines up in the backfield, has 55 catches for 994 yards this season, second in the NFL.

“For the most part, he’s a receiver,” Zimmer said. “He’s terrific with the ball in his hands, he’s a strong runner, really good on the wide receiver screens, plays in the slot some.”

It will be Zimmer’s third road game against the 49ers since he came to Minnesota in 2014. The first one didn’t go well, either, with San Francisco rolling up 230 yards on the ground in a 20-3 win on Monday Night Football to open the 2015 season.

In the playoff game, Minnesota’s run defense wasn’t much better, giving up 186 yards. And the Vikings couldn’t get their ground game going, being held to a meager 21 yards rushing, tied for the lowest playoff game output in team history.

“It’s almost two full years removed, every team is going to be a little bit different,” O’Neill said. “What hasn’t changed is that they still have great talent across the board. They still have a great front seven.”

In the third quarter of the playoff game, Cousins threw a pass that was picked off by San Francisco’s Richard Sherman. On the return, Bosa hit O’Neill in the head area and was flagged for an illegal block. O’Neill was lost for the game with a concussion, and Zimmer and then-Minnesota guard Josh Kline both said afterward that it was a cheap shot.

O’Neill said he hasn’t had any contact with Bosa since the incident and has moved on.

“That’s water under the bridge now,” he said. “I got over that a long time ago. No, I’m good. I respect how he plays the game and hopefully it’s going to be a good battle (Sunday).”

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Game time: Fast facts, odds, injury report and key info for Miami Dolphins (4-7) vs. Carolina Panthers (5-6)

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Game time: Fast facts, odds, injury report and key info for Miami Dolphins (4-7) vs. Carolina Panthers (5-6)

DOLPHINS (4-7) vs. PANTHERS (5-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m., Hard Rock Stadium

TV: FOX (Chs: 7 in Miami-Dade/Broward and 29 in Palm Beach); RADIO: WQAM (560 AM), KISS (99.9 FM), WQBA (1140 AM, Spanish)

Coaches: Brian Flores is 19-24 in his third season with Dolphins; Matt Rhule is 5-6 in his first season leading the Panthers.

Series: The Dolphins have a 4-2 edge in the all-time series with the Panthers, Miami’s least-faced opponent in the NFL, but Carolina has won the past two meetings.

Line: The Dolphins are a 2-point underdog; the over/under is 42.

Injuries: Dolphins — Out: TE Adam Shaheen (knee), DB Elijah Campbell (toe/knee), CB Trill Williams (hamstring); Questionable: S Brandon Jones (ankle/elbow); Injured reserve: WR DeVante Parker (shoulder/hamstring), WR Will Fuller (finger), C Michael Deiter (foot/quad), C Greg Mancz (ankle), RB Malcolm Brown (quadriceps), S Jason McCourty (foot), WR Lynn Bowden (hamstring), WR Allen Hurns (wrist), T Larnel Coleman (knee), T Greg Little (undisclosed); Panthers — Doubtful: G John Miller (ankle); Injured reserve: QB Sam Darnold (shoulder), CB Jaycee Horn (foot), C Matt Paradis (knee), OT Cameron Erving (calf) among 11 players on IR.

Noteworthy: The Dolphins put a three-game winning streak on the line in a key contest to see if they can keep clawing closer to .500 and back into the postseason hunt if a few more victories are strung together. …

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was with the New England Patriots in the preseason before he was cut, making way for Mac Jones to start there. Spending the first half of the season without a home, Newton rejoined the Panthers, whom he spent the first nine seasons of his career with, two weeks ago. …

Newton makes his second start with Carolina after also playing in goal-line packages in his first game back with the Panthers. He lost his start against Washington Football Team, 27-21. When he was with the Patriots last year, the Dolphins split the season series. …

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is coming off a 27-of-33 performance for 273 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 24-17 win against the New York Jets last week. …

Dolphins punter Michael Palardy played in 68 games for the Panthers from 2016 to 2020 with 295 punts. The Panthers have South Florida high school connections with wide receiver Robby Anderson (South Plantation), defensive end Brian Burns (American Heritage), guard John Miller (Miami Central), offensive coordinator Joe Brady (Everglades) and cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper (Miami Killian).

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Front Range retailers hope 2021 holiday shopping season is a little brighter

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Front Range retailers hope 2021 holiday shopping season is a little brighter

Area businesses that have survived the pandemic are banking on the increase in activity and travel to make this year’s holiday shopping season a bit brighter.

Department and big-box stores offered deals on Black Friday while local stores looked forward to Small Business Saturday. The day geared toward independent retailers and other businesses was founded in 2010 by American Express and is cosponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Wheelhouse Gifts on Denver’s South Pearl Street opened in 2020. The store, owned by Jody Fidler, was open for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday last holiday season.

“But because of the pandemic, it wasn’t probably as impactful as it could have been for us,” said Molly Casey, an employee who’s in charge of the store’s social media. “This year, knowing we can be fully open despite the mask mandate, is really important to us.”

Retail analysts and trade organizations say there’s reason for optimism this year. The National Retail Federation said sales rose in October by 1.7% from September despite ongoing labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and rising inflation.

Denver-area shopping centers experienced “a very significant and positive visit trend” in October, according to a statement by Placer.ai, which provides analysis of foot traffic based on data from devices enabled to share the information. Data from Placer.ai showed visits in October to three metro-area shopping centers — Cherry Creek in Denver, Southlands in Aurora and Park Meadows in Lone Tree — were at or slightly above levels for the same period in 2019.

October’s sales numbers indicate people are responding to factors affecting retailers heading into the holidays, said Dave Bruno, director of retail market insights at Aptos, a retail technology company.

“People are shopping early to minimize the risk of supply chain disruptions and inventory outages impacting their holiday gift-giving,” Bruno said in a statement. “The big question, obviously, is whether much of the planned holiday buying is being done early and December sales will suffer, or if this confidence and buying power will sustain strong growth throughout the entire season.”

Charlotte Elich is among Denver-area business owners who hope people turn out in force to support local retailers this holiday season.

“I’m always optimistic. My goal is always to surpass the year before and I’ll say we always seem to have done it, except for 2020,” Elich said. “Now my goal is to at least match 2019 this year.”

To meet that goal, Elich will have to deal with working shorthanded, something businesses from the country’s largest corporations to small mom-and-pop shops are facing as people have quit jobs or not returned after furloughs and layoffs. Elich, who owns 5 Green Boxes gift shop and another store on South Pearl Street in Denver, was struggling to cover shifts when two employees recently quit.

Now, Elich is working in the office during the week and working the counter on weekends. She also has to worry about staffing her store in Union Station in Lower Downtown and an outlet site on the weekends.

“It seems like I had a lot more applicants” in past years, Elich said. “I don’t have a whole lot of people applying these days.”

Elich, who has weathered the ups and downs of the pandemic, has been in business for 44 years.

Shauna Sankey of Colorado Springs started BlackGirlSalsa in August 2020 and hopes to grow it into a full-time venture. She is encouraged by the support she sees for small businesses in campaigns like Google’s Black Owned Friday and Small Business Saturday.

“It wasn’t like a master plan. It just kinda fell into that situation,” Sankey said of her pandemic-born pursuit.

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