Rachel Crosby, more often called Nanny, took charge of Santiago-Hudson when he was a toddler and his cocktail waitress mother was unable to give him proper care. Nanny, a housemaid in her native Virginia, had collected enough money by the '40s to move to Lackawanna, New York, where, among other endeavors, she opened a couple of boarding houses and instantly established herself as surrogate mom to everyone under her roof or close by it. Tough-talking and demanding as recalled by Santiago-Hudson, she was apparently blessed with a solacing combination of heart and understanding. Ready to give shelter to ex-cons, released mental institution inmates, and any other needy stray who showed up on her doorstep, she was also quick to face down bullies and wife-batterers. An unerring judge of character, she had love affairs with men who, if they seemed undeserving of her affection, she set right in the end.
The beneficiaries of her steely kindness carried names like one-legged Ol' Po' Carl and Numb Finger Pete, whose sobriquet reflected his missing digits, as well as battling Jimmy Lee and Pauline, gruff-voiced Lottie and Norma, a white woman married to and abused by a black boxer, and Sweet Tooth Sam and Mr. Lucious and Small Paul. All of them try to make a go at a rewarding Lackawanna existence, some of them succeeding and some failing.
As Santiago-Hudson introduces the characters, he eventually paints a portrait of a community supervised by a single, guiding figure. Although cunningly particularized, the group is emblematic of an easily identifiable, contemporary sub-genre population: an otherwise disenfranchised under-class aggregate galvanized by one strong, African-American woman. In honoring Nanny, Santiago-Hudson is recognizing only one in a line of normally unsung national heroes, the sort of woman who might show up as Channel One's New Yorker of the Week but who wouldn't expect or even want to receive much more in the way of public attention.
While seeing to her extended family over the incident-filled years, Nanny does age; she does begin to fail. Hospitalized a few times, she develops heart trouble and is threatened with the loss of her leg. (Whether it is removed and whether the diagnosis is diabetes are both unclear.) Her death, marked by Santiago-Hudson's looking at the spotlit, empty wood chair, comes eventually. In further acknowledgment of it, the actor sings "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again" in a rich and moving baritone. (At other times, Santiago-Hudson picks up a harmonica to augment Syms's economical and plangent chords and riffs.)
In honoring his life-saving Nanny, the actor employs the simplest means, and this seems fitting for his defiantly humble subject. He moves with a kind of comfortable compulsion around Myung Hee Cho's uncluttered blue and orange set, on which only a wooden chair and a chrome-and-fake-leather bar stool sit. As he crosses again and again under Loretta Greco's controlled, unintrusive direction, he inhabits every character without the use of props or accessories or a change from the open-necked orange shirt and brown trousers that Cho has chosen for him. A big and lumbering man, the actor at first looks powerful but not especially graceful; he has used these attributes previously, most notably in Seven Guitars, for which he won a Tony and a slew of other awards.
Yet his physical presence can be deceiving. For, as he presents Ol' Po' Carl, Norma, Lottie, Mr. Lemuel Taylor, Nanny, himself as a child, or any one of the other 16 characters, he is as graceful, as full of violent gestures, as humble, or as arrogant as the situation requires. He simply shifts the set of his shoulders, or raises or lowers his voice. With a walk or a cigarette-induced cough or a quick, fancy-man's dance step, he transforms himself with the same alacrity exhibited uptown at the moment by Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and Conleth Hill and Sean Campion in Stones in His Pockets.