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Sunset Baby

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 20, 2024

Moses Ingram and Russell Hornsby
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Singer and songwriter Nina Simone was a clarion voice of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In songs like "Mississippi Goddam" and "Old Jim Crow," Simone's words and music provided a soundtrack for the revolution, but professionally and personally she paid a high price for her forthrightness. Although Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby, currently playing at New York's Signature Theatre, is not about Simone, her spirit haunts the play at every turn.

Sunset Baby was first performed in New York in 2013 when the Black Lives Matter protests were in their infancy, yet the play retains much of its power. Focusing on the estranged relationship of a father and daughter, Morisseau reveals the toll that a life devoted to social activism may take.

Kenyatta Shakur (Russell Hornsby) is a former political prisoner, who years before held up an armored truck in order to bring attention to the Black Liberation Movement. His wife, Ashanti X, who was also instrumental in the movement, has recently died, and it turns out she was in possession of a collection of unsent letters to the imprisoned Kenyatta.

The couple's daughter Nina (Moses Ingram), who was named after the controversial musical artist Simone, is deeply resentful of her father, who she says abandoned the family and was the cause of her mother's fatal drug addiction. She admits she has been bequeathed the letters, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars, and has no intention of handing them over to her father. These "notes on the revolution," as Nina describes them, are desired by academics, publishers and reporters. "Everybody wants them," she tells Kenyatta, "Long lost love letters to a political prisoner."

Nina, embittered and angry, along with her boyfriend Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), is a drug dealer, and the pair make a living by setting traps for Black men whom they rob. The letters and the couple's accumulated earnings could provide the means for fleeing their current existence and to travel the world.

As with Morisseau's more recent play, Confederates, Sunset Baby explores the legacies and lasting imprints of Black revolutionaries. In addition to the reference to Nina Simone, the family names gesture to well-known and important figures such as Black Panther Ashanti Omowali Alston, the renowned Malcolm X, anti-colonialist and Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, and political firebrand (and mother to Tupac) Afeni Shakur. Yet, as the play shows, committed social activism has its consequences. As Kenyatta tells his daughter about Nina Simone, "She was a rebel deep in her soul," and he explains that her sense of racial uplift "was a need that cost her dearly. That's what they don't tell you. She was full of brilliance and torment."

The performances under director Steve H. Broadnax III are rich and finely textured. When we first meet Nina, she wears heavy makeup, a gaudy wig (effectively designed by J. Jared Janas), and, as described in the script, "thigh-high hooker boots" (reflecting Emilio Sosa's meticulous attention to period and characterization) as if they were an impenetrable shell. The fortified get-up makes her impervious to her father's efforts at reconciliation. As the play proceeds, however, and as Nina removes the layers of protection (both material and emotional), Moses reveals the character's accumulated pain, isolation and vulnerabilities. It's a mesmerizing performance.

As Kenyatta, Hornsby teases with moments of manipulative self-righteousness, but also shows the debilitating effects of a person unable to balance a commitment to both social justice and familial support. In the difficult role of Damon, Nicholson pushes the character beyond surface villainy to reveal the depths of regret for not being a better father and lover.

Set almost entirely in Nina's squalid East New York apartment, the production captures a suitable sense of claustrophobia and social oppressiveness, as well as the specters of history that shadow the characters. (Wilson Chin's scenic design, Alan C. Edwards's lighting, and Katherine Freer's projections and video productively achieve these impressions.) Only the Travel Channel, which Nina watches religiously, offers flights of fancy and dreams of permanent escape.

As an early play by Morisseau, Sunset Baby does not have the dramatic complexity of later works such as Skeleton Crew, nor the fierce audacity of Confederates, but it still manages to get under the skin.

Sunset Baby
Through March 10, 2024
Signature Theatre
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: