Santiago-Hudson evokes the whole region first, in a few brief strokes. The mid-20th century was a time of rising black fortunes in the northern Industrial Belt, when people migrated from the South in search of jobs. "Chicago, Erie, Detroit, Buffalo, Lackawanna," he chants. "After hours were jumpin'. ... Brothers from Tennessee slappin' sauce on racks of ribs." Nanny Crosby ruled her boardinghouse with an unvanquished moral courage. "Nanny was like a government," he says, "-- if it really worked."
The show is frankly autobiographical. Santiago-Hudson creates a boyish alter ego for himself, named Junior, and describes how his mother, Alean, would leave him alone during her shifts as a barmaid. Nanny insisted on taking care of Junior, as she took care of everyone else, and following Nanny on her daily rounds gave Junior his early, indelible education.
We get to meet Ol' Po' Carl, a retired Negro League pitcher who remembers how pretty Alean was as a young woman. "When she walked, it was like music! She had rhythm all down her backbone" -- and the rhythm of Carl's voice sets the beat for a soft walking blues from Sims' guitar. "Beauty is in the behind of the beholder," Carl informs the boy. And: "Ol' Po' Carl is 79 years old an' he ain't shootin' nothin' but warm water!"
Sex talk is the least of Junior's lessons, though. There's also Mr. Taylor, a one-legged former mental patient who flickers his tongue involuntarily across his lips like a "Negro iguana." He says to Nanny, when he can't pay his rent, "Long as I have known you, you always been a rock for all of the peoples that in need -- and Mama, I'm in need." Nanny's generosity and strength become an object lesson for Junior, and the gallery of characters brought to life by Santiago-Hudson forms a kaleidoscopic portrait of the woman who taught him to be a man.
This show premiered last year at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, and it arrives at the Geary with Myung Hee Cho's straightforward set and Loretta Greco's clean direction intact. Santiago-Hudson wears a plain pair of creased brown slacks and a simple shirt; his only props are a barstool and a wooden chair. Sims sits to Santiago-Hudson's left with the guitar, hiding under a bluesman's hat. The bare set is washed in deep indigo lights (by James Vermeulen), and an empty picture frame hangs upstage, suggesting the actor's nostalgia for a vanished world. (The title of the show deliberately echoes a Langston Hughes poem, "Homesick Blues," which is printed in the press material.)
One of the most powerful scenes deals with a tenant of Nanny's who knocks on her door in the middle of the night, crying because her prizefighter husband has beaten her again. Nanny takes the woman in, along with her two kids. When the fighter shows up in the morning to claim his family, Nanny won't let him in. "Miss Rachel," Santiago-Hudson says in a deep and dangerous voice, "I ain't got no beef wit' you. But you gettin' all up in between me an' mine."
"What I'm gettin' in between," answers Nanny, frail but firm, "is right and wrong."
Lackawanna Blues has no particular plot; it just follows the arcs of two lives (Nanny's and Junior's) for about 90 minutes, until Santiago-Hudson makes his emotional point. Between episodes, he sings or wails on a blues harp -- the man can play harmonica almost as well as he can act -- and the result is a rhythmic, sad, but uplifting story that feels less formal than most ACT productions. When Sims and Santiago-Hudson lapse into song, people in the audience feel free to yell, "Yeah!" or "All right!"; and when a character says something meaningful, they respond. On the night I was there this mild rowdiness unsettled a couple of ACT subscribers, who seem to prefer the audience to be silent and polite. But the extra noise wasn't like crackling candy wrappers -- to me, it was happy evidence that Santiago-Hudson has achieved the status of a real griot, connecting with his audience in the old tradition.