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A Reflective “Sunset Baby” Dawns Off Broadway

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Theatre is a mirror, but for what? We quote “Hamlet,” saying that performance should hold a “mirror up to nature”; in an interview, the playwright Dominique Morisseau cited Nina Simone, who said that an artist’s duty is “to reflect the times.” Nature, right; the times, of course—the theatre should reflect those things. But a play might also be positioned to show us the person who wrote it.

In “Sunset Baby,” now at the Off Broadway Pershing Square Signature Center, Morisseau, best known for her play cycle, “The Detroit Project,” invites us to look at the fraught final encounters between a woman and her activist father. When Nina (Moses Ingram) was five years old, her dad, the Black Power revolutionary Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby), went to prison for an attempted armored-truck heist—to “steal capitalist dollars in the name of Third World democracy,” Nina sneers—and her once renegade mother dwindled into heartbreak and, eventually, addiction and early death. Now Nina is grown and making her own violent way, along with her boyfriend, Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson). Together they think of themselves as Bonnie and Clyde, gun-toting tricksters who lure men into drug deals and rob them. Nina and Damon don’t want radical liberation; they want ten thousand dollars. That stash will finally let them escape East New York for Paris or London or some other beautiful place that Nina has fallen in love with via the Travel Channel.

Nina—named for the play’s tutelary spirit, Simone—spends a great deal of “Sunset Baby” staring into a mirror, dressing for her part in these crimes, pulling her thigh-high electric-blue boots on and off, and making herself up to the point of unrecognizability. Ingram, who swung a lightsabre in the TV show “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” seems infinitely more tired here: her shoulders slump; her eyes, their lids painted peacock green, often drift nearly shut. Nina does have several stashes of treasure, however, that she hasn’t told Damon about. Most important is a trove of letters that her mother left behind, written but never sent to her lover in prison; now that Kenyatta is out, he’s desperate to have them. First, he begs his daughter, and she rejects him, with a surge of righteous fury. But, once Damon realizes that Kenyatta might be willing to pay for the letters, he pressures Nina into meeting with him again. Bitter and hardened as she is, her father’s still burning idealism starts to melt and change her, even though he himself never seems to bend. Hornsby plays Kenyatta as a man always standing rigidly at attention, a soldier who hears the bugle calling.

In the director Steve H. Broadnax III’s production, the crumbling, meagrely furnished tenement where Nina lives—designed by Wilson Chin for maximum bleakness—doesn’t always seem quite real. Inside the apartment, Broadnax and his cast pay attention to small, world-building gestures, such as the way Damon takes off his shoes and changes into slides the minute he arrives. We never sense the world outside, though—no neighbors, no friends, nothing but the apartment buzzer, signalling another man who needs Nina to come to the door. She listens to Nina Simone’s music constantly, and thus a sense of blues-broken reverie pervades every scene, even when people are shouting at, or stealing from, or abandoning one another. Kenyatta has recorded video messages for his estranged daughter, which are projected on the upstage wall, and his face, big as a billboard, looms above Nina’s ugly room, his eyes as staring and huge as a god’s. The image is wonderful, even though these passages are some of Morisseau’s least confidently written. “This is not my apology. I could never. . . . Wouldn’t know where to begin,” Kenyatta says, his eyes moist with tears. “This is all I know, Nina. Speaking. Writing. Ideas. Activism. Justice. Meditation. Pondering.”

“Sunset Baby” was first produced in New York by the LAByrinth Theatre, in 2013, after premièring in 2012 in London. Though it was well received, it was soon eclipsed by the Detroit trilogy—“Paradise Blue,” set in 1949; the Motown-era “Detroit ’67”; and the contemporary “Skeleton Crew”—which established Morisseau as a gifted orchestrator of plots about America’s ongoing betrayal of Black workers. The revival of “Sunset” at the Signature is part of a multiyear residency, which has included a restaging of “Paradise Blue,” in 2018, and a première of her most beautiful play to date, “Confederates,” in 2022, which darted between two time frames: modern-day academia and a guerrilla action on a plantation during the Civil War. As a socially conscious writer, Morisseau seems drawn to realism, but I find her most convincing when she blurs her stories into quasi-fable, which she did in the time-bending “Confederates,” and which she does, in glimpses and glances, here.

The attempts in “Sunset” to capture reality, when unmediated by fantasy, can falter. Ingram has a nice, icy thousand-yard stare, but Morisseau has written her part as a strange mixture of street-smart intellectual and deprived innocent who, as Nina says, has never even seen a “fuckin’ sunset.” (New York has its drawbacks, no doubt, but the sun does go down here.) Elsewhere, though, Morisseau is more careful with characterization. The play’s finest accomplishment is Damon, whose own deep reading has allowed him to recast his exploitation of others as a kind of warped political radicalism. Nicholson, giving an astonishing performance, displays a gorgeous ease onstage, and is able to play Damon as both the supportive lover and the pleading bully, sometimes in the same moment, his arms around Nina’s waist. Morisseau often pairs threat with some kind of appeal for love. “Tell me you need me, baby,” Damon demands. Nina, in turn, will ask her father to express his regrets—at the point of a gun.

None of this mirrors Morisseau’s life, or her parents’. But there’s still personal revelation in the play. The playwright has posted a quote in the lobby outside the theatre, noting the way her own politically engaged father inspired her: “I’ve called my mother many times, like, ‘Explain this to me. I’m trying to calm down; I’m not sure why I can’t calm down. Have I always been this agitated?’ She reminds me that I have always been like this. My father was a revolutionary-minded man.” And when, toward the end of the play, Kenyatta hands Nina a photograph of herself as a child, it’s actually a picture of Morisseau, taken by her dad when she was a toddler.

For a long time now, Morisseau, the bard of Detroit, has been one of our most morally driven, socially active writers. So “Sunset Baby,” with its air of both fantasy and remorse, provides an illuminating look into Morisseau’s magisterial status in American theatre. Who, really, is qualified to be Nina’s comrade? Damon seems steeped in progressive theory, casually dropping terms from Steven Spitzer’s “Toward a Marxian Theory of Deviance,” but for some reason his praxis includes taking Nina’s money. And Kenyatta, so dedicated to action and self-examination, has made no allowance for the profound damage done to his daughter by his absence. Morisseau hints at the pressures applied from one generation to the next, and we begin to understand the loneliness of liberation. It is necessary, of course, and Morisseau clearly appreciates the immeasurable gifts given to her by her father. But Nina hasn’t had a childhood—and her creator may be showing us the high emotional cost of being raised in the revolution. ♦


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