And after the harsh times of the past year and a half, we’re overdue for some amusement. Santiago-Hudson, a merciless charmer, gamely supplies many funny moments: whether he’s recounting a prime-time-worthy brawl between Numb Finger Pete and Mr. Lemuel Taylor or speaking in the mangled vocabulary of Ol’ Po’ Carl, who praises the sights of New York, including “da Statue Delivery” and “the Entire State Building.”
Though even at those occasions when he emulates these Lackawanna guys — many of whom, he adds, are poor and uneducated — he doesn’t do so ruthlessly; he treats them with delicacy and empathy, even the brutal ones who did evil.
There are also occasions of sorrow, which Santiago-Hudson fails to hit as nimbly. He pushes too hard on the emotional themes, like a scene in which a woman comes to Nanny’s in the middle of the night with her kids and gory wounds. And at the end, he clumsily circles around an ending that must inevitably handle dear Nanny’s death.
It inevitably comes back to Nanny, with her rigid back and tightly folded arms; Santiago-Hudson’s depiction suggests a Cicely Tyson type, a strong Black matriarch not to be trifled with. His narrative performance is outstanding for many reasons, but one of the most nuanced is the way Santiago-Hudson perceives it all, as a youngster listening and peeping through doorways, with curious and affectionate eyes.
He anchors us in the details, which brings not just these personalities, but also a whole town to life: the way a lady pops her hips, the way a man coughs, even the unique colour of the Lackawanna snow. After all, people may think the blues are about heartbreak, but to get to heartbreak, you first have to pass through love.
Through Oct. 31 at Manhattan Theater Club; 212-239-6200, manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.