And after the dark times of the past year and a half, we’re overdue for some laughter. 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 in those moments when he emulates these Lackawanna folks — many of whom, he notes, are poor and uneducated — he doesn’t do so cruelly; he treats them with tenderness and empathy, even the brutal ones who did wrong.
There are also instances of sorrow, which Santiago-Hudson fails to attack as nimbly. He pushes too hard on the emotional notes, like a scene in which a woman comes to Nanny’s in the middle of the night with her kids and bloody wounds. And by the end, he awkwardly circles around an ending that must inevitably tackle dear Nanny’s death.
It always comes back to Nanny, with her stiff back and neatly folded arms; Santiago-Hudson’s rendering evokes a Cicely Tyson type, a strong Black matriarch not to be trifled with. His narrative performance is impressive for many reasons, but one of the most nuanced is the way Santiago-Hudson sees it all, as a child eavesdropping and peeking through doorways, with curious and affectionate eyes.
He grounds us in the details, which brings not just these characters, but also a whole town to life: the way a woman pops her hips, the way a man coughs, even the particular tint 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.