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Sunset Baby
by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 15, 2016

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Which comes first, your family or the cause? That dilemma and the consequences of it are a major focus of Dominique Morriseau’s Sunset Baby. It’s a drama of relationships, dreams, and ideals, currently being given a sensitive and well-cast production at the Black Rep.

Kenyatta Shakur (Ron Himes) is the famous leader of a 1980’s black revolutionary movement, who has spent a lot of time in jail as a result of his activism. He has an adult daughter, Nina (Erin Renee Roberts), who didn’t see much of her father when she was growing up, instead being raised by her mother, another famous activist who has recently died after a long battle with drug addiction. When Kenyatta shows up at Nina’s Brooklyn apartment after many years of estrangement, he’s looking for some letters that Nina’s mother had written to him but never mailed. Nina, however, is suspicious of her father’s motives, since various others are also interested in the letters and are willing to spend a great deal of money for them. Forced to drop out of college due to money and having to take care of her mother, she’s now living in a run-down apartment and making a living as a hustler along with her boyfriend, Damon (Lawd Gabe), a drug dealer who also has a child of his own from a previous relationship. Nina, who was named after the famous singer Nina Simone, often spends time listening to Simone’s music and hoping for a future outside of New York, a dream that is fueled by watching travel shows on TV. In the midst of this situation comes her father, who also is shown making a series of videos for Nina. He’s looking to reconnect with his daughter as well as reading the letters, but Nina doesn’t know who to trust. The contrast between Kenyatta and Damon is a major element of the story, as is Kenyatta’s desire to let Nina know how much she and her mother mean to him, as well as the continuing importance of the cause.

This is a small-cast, character-driven play and the actors fit their characters well. Himes projects a combined sense of weariness, regret, concern, and hope as Kenyatta. He doesn’t particularly look like a famous revolutionary, but that’s part of the point, I think. He’s a man and a father who went through some very real struggles for his cause and for the people involved, including his family. That shows in Himes’ performance, and his scenes with Roberts are particularly affecting. Roberts admirably portrays a range of qualities as well, from anger, resentment, and suspicion, to aspiration and hope. Gabe, as Damon, is alternately charming, crafty, and dejected, and he has some strong scenes with both Roberts and Himes. The heart of the drama, though, is the relationship between Kenyatta, Nina, and Nina’s late mother, who never appears except in one projected still image and in a painted silhouette that hangs on Nina’s wall. She’s just as a much a character in the play as the rest. She’s not there, but she’s there, and the production does a good job of creating that sense of familial presence between her and the living, on stage characters of the man she loved and their daughter.

The staging is simple but inventive, with a set by Jim Burkwinkel that consists of two distinct areas–Nina’s apartment and Kenyatta’s room, where he sits to record the videos for his daughter. There’s also excellent use of projections by Mark Wilson. The costumes designed by Daryl Harris are excellent as well, particularly in Nina’s range of distinctive outfits and wigs. There’s good use of lighting as well, designed by Sean Savoie and appropriately setting the mood for the scenes set at various times of day.

Although sometimes I wish there would have been more to this script in terms of background and motivations for the characters (especially Damon, who is the most underwritten), this production is staged well with a strong sense of drama and relationship. It’s an intriguing play that also deals with extremely timely issues of how civil rights activists are treated (and mistreated) by authorities, while more overtly it’s about the father-daughter relationship. It’s a memorable piece of theatre that raises many important questions, and it’s well worth checking out.

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Sunset Baby is being presented by The Black Rep at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 31, 2016.

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