George C. Wolfe’s first big project since announcing his departure from the Public Theater is this bustling adaptation of Lackawanna Blues. He inflates Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical one-man play (originally staged at the Public) into a choreographed carnival of nostalgia. In recent interviews, Wolfe deemed his made-for-TV movie a “love poem to segregation,” something that comes through in this conjuration of a just barely bygone time when folks in close-knit black communities (in this case, the industrial upstate New York town of Lackawanna) took care of one another. “Segregation freed those people to make their own heaven on earth,” says Junior (Marcus Carl Franklin), looking back with a rose-tinted camera lens on his childhood living with a surrogate mother, Miss Rachel “Nanny” Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson), and the inhabitants of her boarding house.
The fact that Nanny’s based on a real person doesn’t make her conform any less to the indomitable black mama archetype. She’s salty (got a “big ol’ yellow geechee boy” for a boyfriend who’s 17 years her junior) but saintly, rescuing anyone in need of a second chance. As the narrator explains, “Nanny was like the government, if it really worked,” a kind of one-woman welfare system. Her rooming house resembles a cabinet of human curiosities: Tenants include Pauline (singer Macy Gray), a sweet, screw-loose belle with a helium voice and a penchant for slashing her boyfriend’s neck; Small Paul (Jeffrey Wright), an erudite loner who schools Ruben in black history; and Mr. Lucious (Delroy Lindo), a hulking but kind fella who lost an arm while “defending a lady’s honor.”
The house that Wolfe builds is a stew of bodies and smoke and blues, all swaying and jiving and chattering to a syncopated rhythm. And he crams the screen with supersaturated hues that shout out to us just how colorful those colored folk really were back in the day. In fact, Junior’s one foray into the white world—when Nanny and he drive home a young white mother who’s been beaten by her black husband—is depicted as a pale wonderland. Nanny sits serenely in the plush, white room, drinking tea and eating dainty cookies baked by someone else. Far away from the “whiskey and blood,” free of her needy dependents back home, she falls asleep. As Junior recalls wistfully, “It was almost like a fairy tale.” For all its swing and fine acting, Lackawanna feels a little too much like an uplifting fantasy itself, an uneasy transformation of misfortune into myth.