Reviews

Sunset Baby ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 4, 2024: A little more than 10 years ago, in December 2013, to be precise, I saw the first New York staging of Dominique Morisseau’s riveting Sunset Baby, a work mingling father-daughter dysfunction against a background of revolutionary Black activism. The production arrived a year after its premiere in London, in 2012. Staged, I vaguely recall, in the three-quarters round at the intimate Labyrinth Theatre on Bank Street, it’s now being revived in standard proscenium style at the Signature Theatre’s somewhat larger Linney Courtyard Theatre. 

Moses Ingram and Russell Hornsby.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 4, 2024: A little more than 10 years ago, in December 2013, to be precise, I saw the first New York staging of Dominique Morisseau’s riveting Sunset Baby, a work mingling father-daughter dysfunction against a background of revolutionary Black activism. The production arrived a year after its premiere in London, in 2012. Staged, I vaguely recall, in the three-quarters round at the intimate Labyrinth Theatre on Bank Street, it’s now being revived in standard proscenium style at the Signature Theatre’s somewhat larger Linney Courtyard Theatre. 

Seated toward the rear, I admit to having felt something of a loss of intimacy in the new arrangement, although the performances, directed with visceral power by Steve H. Broadnax III, are every bit as dynamic as those in the earlier production. A few static scenes aside, the intermissionless, 100-minute drama, whizzes by, its often-powerful script supplemented by three dynamic performances. 

The action, which happens in the early 2000s, is set in a grittily realistic, drearily rundown East New York, Brooklyn, apartment (designed by Wilson Chin). When we first meet the daughter, Nina (Moses Ingram), a woman in her late 20’s, she’s provocatively dressed, wearing a tight, sequined minidress, black, thigh-high, zippered, high-heeled boots, and a hooker’s flaming red wig. All are part of her uniform for aiding her boyfriend, Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), as the Bonnie to his Clyde in drug dealing and robbery. 

Moses Ingram and Russell Hornsby.

Nina, named for Nina Simone, the blues and jazz singer revered not only for her music but her activism, is the intellectually gifted but socially (and emotionally) depressed bastard (her word) child of Kenyatta Shakur (Russell Hornsby). He’s a former revolutionist who has recently gotten out of jail after serving time for the robbery of an armored truck (an allusion, one imagines, to the 1981 Brink’s robbery by members of the Black Liberation Army). 

He and Nina’s mother, Ashanti X, a hugely accomplished activist revered by the movement, named their daughter Nina in the hope she’d one day lead the revolution, but instead, as she says, “I sell drugs and rob niggas.” Ashanti herself is dead from her crack addiction, and the only possession of hers still owned by Nina is a cache of unmailed letters to Kenyatta that she keeps hidden. 

Ashanti X and Kenyatta were leading militants in the 60s (no groups are mentioned and the time frame is left unmentioned, although apparent from both textual references and a late film clip montage); they were looked up to by many in the Black community, and their love letters have substantial economic value to many publishers and scholars who seek access to them. Nina, though, despite her financial needs and the crude and dangerous lifestyle she’s forced to live, has thus far refused the large sums offered for them because they’re her last remaining link to Ashanti.

J. Alphonse Nicholson and Russell Hornsby.

Kenyatta tries desperately to bring a reasoned warmth to his attempts to reconnect with the daughter he’s had very little contact with since he left her addicted mother when Nina was five; to her he’s nothing but “a stranger.” She’s adamant that the letters belong to her, citing her late mother’s will where she says “So that you will understand what we do for love, Nina.” Her father desperately wishes to obtain the letters, not for financial gain, he insists. Since he’s unable to say just why he has to read them, it’s likely they’re needed to help heal his guilt, a guilt Nina is determined to rub into his soul for all it’s worth. 

Damon is a smarter-than-you’d-think trash-talking street hustler who speaks (or often shouts) in rapid-fire fashion. When Nina bitterly turns her father’s request down, Kenyatta seeks the help of Damon, who sympathizes with the revolution although with his own take on it: “fuck the government, disrupt capitalism . . . ,” which Damon uses to justify his own antiestablishment dealings. 

He also sniffs the chance to score a lot of money if Nina can be talked into giving her father the letters, and in his urgency to find the letters, he turns the apartment upside down, although he never notices what many playgoers would have chosen as the first place to look. His search, however, turns up something that opens the door to a fiery confrontation with Nina regarding trust, during which an argument about his relationship with his own kid reflects ironically on that of Nina and her own dad.

Moses Ingram

Director Broadnax has inspired high-octane performances from Ingram and Hornsby, filled with bitterness and rage. Nicholson, with his vulgar street language and home boy moves, is a convincingly sharp-tongued, pistol-packing thug (this is one play, though, in which Chekhov’s law doesn’t apply).

He gets the opportunity to show his softer side when talking about the eight-year-old son for whom he pays child support to his estranged wife, who hates him, and his well-read side when he discusses sociologist Stephen Spitzer’s distinction between Social Junk (those who passively depend on government support, like welfare) and Social Dynamite (those who fight back, the revolutionaries and activists), or when he talks of his dream to escape his present lifestyle for one of travel; like his predecessor in the role, however, he can be gratingly aggressive. 

Ingram is a dramatically potent presence, her disgust with her father’s abandonment of her and her mother being so deep it gives you goosebumps; while she has her tender moments, the script forces her to maintain a sense of wrath and suspicion that can grow wearisome. On the other hand, she earns points for the consistency of her conviction. The scene where she’s compelled to declare her love for Damon, whose affection is inextricably entwined with menace, and then takes a position in preparation for rear-entry sex, is devastating in the way she offers a zombie-like response exposing the hollowness in her soul.   

Russell Hornsby

Hornsby’s performance is arguably the most complex, since Kenyatta, perpetually stymied and insulted in his quest, struggles to maintain a surface of calmness and equanimity as he tries convince the daughter he ignored—in the interests of the revolution, to obviously disappointing effect—to hand over the letters. The effort is palpable, but, faced with Nina’s intransigence, he ultimately breaks, and the result is overwhelming in its force. 

At several junctures we also see him make video recordings (Katherine Freer did the video design) of his deepest feelings for Nina, saying things she would never give him the chance to express. For example, his opening speech begins: “Fatherhood. Complex. Complicated. An abstract concept. Not clearly definable. Stages. For sure there are stages. Levels of its affectiveness [sic]. Affectionless,” and so on. 

Other recorded passages, however, are less elusive, and more narrative driven, but they essentially serve either as stylistic veneer or expository background on Kenyatta’s hopes for Nina’s participation in the revolutionary struggle, something she herself declares is not what she wants.

Moses Ingram and J. Alphonse Nicholson.

Sunset Baby, moodily lit by Alan C. Edwards and smartly costumed by Emilio Sosa, also includes a fine sound design by Curtis Craig and Jimmy King (aka “J. Keys”) drawn from Nina Simone’s music, the selections effectively threaded into the play’s themes. 

With its tingling mix of social junk and social dynamite, Sunset Baby—titled after the nickname Kenyatta gave the two-year-old Nina on the Pacific Coast when she saw her first sunset—justifies its revival. It also demonstrates why Dominique Morisseau, who would go on to write Skeleton Crew and Pipeline, among other vivid contributions, is such an important contributor to the contemporary stage.

Sunset Baby ****
Linney Courtyard Theatre/Signature Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 10, 2024
Photography: Marc J. Franklin

J. Alphonse Nicholson ans Moses Ingram.