By Karen Isaacs
Sunset Baby now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Feb. 19 may shock you, upset you or leave you with mixed emotions.
At the heart of this play is a father-daughter relationship that has been fractured, probably beyond repair. But it also about how some people survive by hardening their hearts and abandoning the better side of themselves. In the program notes, the playwright asks “how can my generation be so brilliant and so self-destructive at the same time?”
The play opens with the father, Kenyatta, who serves occasionally as a narrator or commentator. But soon we are in the small apartment that Nina and Damon share. It is definitely in the low rent district, apparently in Brooklyn but it could be any large city. We see her getting dressed and from her apparel – short, short skirt, thigh-high boots, we can assume that she is a prostitute. Kenyatta rings the bell and she lets him in.
It is clear that they have not seen each other for many, many years and that they have practically no relationship. In fact, she is quite angry with him. Where has he been all these years? For some of the time he was in jail. It’s not clear exactly why he was in jail, but there are hints that he was imprisoned for some sort of black radical or revolutionary actions. Nina’s mother (and his wife) has recently died and Nina has inherited some letter that her mother had written him while he was imprisoned. He wants to read them.
Unanswered are why the mother had the letters – were they never mailed? Returned by prison authorities? What is also unclear is why these letters apparently are worth a good deal of money. Was Kenyatta well known for his actions? Was his wife also an activist and well known? But apparently publishers are making Nina various offers for thousands of dollars.
The apartment buzzer keeps ringing as Damon, her current boyfriend, is waiting for her. Eventually she goes down to meet him. As the play progresses we learn more, but not enough to make this play totally successful. Nina and Damon are hustlers who rob men who think she is a prostitute. But they have a dream of getting enough money to leave and perhaps settle in a foreign country. Nina, however, keeps changing where she would like to live based on the Travel Channel, and the stash never seems sufficient.
The two don’t totally trust each other either. Damon doesn’t understand about the letters and their supposed value; he is shocked to find that Nina has appropriated some of their savings. But they do have a true relationship; Damon was with her as she took care of her mother – who had become a crack addict – as she was dying.
Kenyatta appeals to Damon to try to talk Nina into letting him read the letters. In the climactic scene Nina and Kenyatta meet yet again. Adhering to Chekhov’s purported statement that if a gun appears in act one it must be used; she robs him instead.
So much is left unanswered in this play. From why Kenyatta was jailed, to why the letters are valuable and to what the letters contain. This missing information makes Sunset Baby less satisfying.
Yet playwright Dominique Morisseau has some nice touches. Nina either doesn’t remember or has blocked various memories of her and her father. Late in this one-act play, Kenyatta recounts some of these including taking her to see sunsets in San Francisco. Earlier, Nina has claimed to never have seen a sunset.
Nina is fueled by anger at her father for everything from not being there to not providing child support. It’s clear she blames him for her mother’s descent into addiction.
Another problem is that this play tries to touch on so many issues. One is guilt; Kenyatta seems to feel guilty about what has happened. Another is dreams – are they possible to have when you are in difficult circumstances or do they hurt you too much? A third issue is fatherhood and fatherly love. What does it mean and how do you make up for a lack of it?
Director Reginald L. Douglas and his talented cast have compensated for the many unanswered questions by giving us a taut and dynamic production. The set design by Alexander Woodward puts us immediately in the run down, small walk up apartment. I also liked the sound design by Julian Evans and the selection of recorded music – most sung by Nina Simone – that he and the director used.
Tony Todd as Kenyatta shows us a man who is aging, trying to atone for past actions and is surprisingly unguarded. Brittany Bellizeare as Nina combines the hardened woman trying to survive with the child wishing that things had been different. Carlton Byrd’s Damon is part street hustler and part caring friend and lover.
Morisseau has created complex characters – all three of them are intelligent and well read, yet Nina and Damon have selected a life that preys on others. At one point she juxtaposes two terms: ‘social junk” and “social dynamite;” it brought to mind the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem” that opens with “what happens to a dream deferred.”
Some will find the language raw – the “N” word is used frequently as well as multiple swear words. Others will find the play depressing; after all it does not seem that the dreams of any of the characters will come true.
Yet, Sunset Baby, despite the language and the unanswered questions, is a play that you will think about after you leave the theater.
Sunset Baby is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through February 19. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.