Fort Worth — Your mother was “a warrior-woman as powerful as the sun,” says the long-absent father, once a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Together, they had hoped that she, their child, would be “our revolution, our change.”
“I break your heart, don’t I?” says the grown daughter he doesn’t know—pointing a gun at his head.
Jubilee Theatre’s production of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby gives North Texas audiences a second chance to hear the voice of this intriguing playwright, whose award-winning Detroit ’67 (first part of a trilogy about her home city) was given a strong production last year by African American Repertory Theater. Sunset Baby is less sprawling in scope, focused on three characters in a gritty, wordy and sometimes poetical meditation on what happens to words like “love” and “family” once a hard world has chewed them up. Vickie Washington directs with heart and bite, letting the humanity of these difficult characters shine through.
Nina (Whitney Coulter) has a profitable hustle going with her partner and lover Damon (Christopher Dontrell Piper). Dressed in thigh-high boots and a whore’s wig, she lures them in, and together they take them down. Nina doesn’t mince words: she and Damon are in business to “sell drugs and rob n***.” Their dream is to collect “ten stacks”—$10,000—then go after the future they want: a trip to London, a house in the country, a garden. Damon has a young son he loves; Nina wants kids too. They’re desperate to leave their grimy New York apartment and its duct-taped furniture (Rodney Dobbs’ set came with a mouse at the performance reviewed—keeping it real) but that’s always hazily in the future.
Enter Kenyatta (William Earl Ray), the father who abandoned Nina and her mother Ashanti X when she was a small child—first for prison, and then on wanderings for “the movement.” Nina’s mother died of drugs and depression, and now Kenyatta (his name connects to another troubled activist, Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta) has come looking for a packet of love letters his wife wrote to him long ago but never sent. But Nina’s not interested in sharing the only piece left of her now-famous mother—especially with the man she blames for her death. Nina herself was named for smoky-voiced singer Nina Simone, whose music is the soundtrack of the play.
Coulter and Ray are mysterious as this cool father/daughter pair, each of them keeping secrets and obscuring their true emotions. Coulter’s Nina sheds clothing and personalities like a series of snakeskins. Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes are revealing on multiple levels; Nina reveals nothing. Ray’s worn-down Kenyatta is blank-faced and intensely controlled, a man more comfortable haranguing a crowd than talking with his only child.
Strangely, the warmest character onstage is the street hustler Damon; Piper gives him a rough tenderness and vulnerability. Damon angsts over his son’s birthday gift, rubs Nina’s aching feet, pleads with her to tell him “you need me, you love me.” He’s afraid Nina will leave him—and we think he might be right.
Morisseau spends too many minutes with father and daughter locked in position, going over the same patch of the past. We’re eager for something to happen. Sell him the letters, shoot him, something. “Are you always like this—hard at the core?” Kenyatta asks his daughter—but he should know where she got it from.
Slowly, Nina collects details of a past she can’t remember for herself. Her father remembers taking her to the beach, calling her his “sunset baby.” Kenyatta says he had to leave; the FBI was making life dangerous for the families of activists and “love became a liability.” Yet it’s evident he finds it easier to speak his feelings into a camcorder (he leaves Nina with a series of short confessional videos) than to speak truth to her face. Nina reads her mother’s letters to Kenyatta, left to her, she says, “so that you would understand what we do for love, Nina.”
Is Nina learning, changing, growing? After so many words, Morisseau’s ending is a blur of action, not entirely clear in the moment. Perhaps the playwright is telling us that sometimes, a simple recognition of the authentic self can be a breakthrough—a kind of freedom. Nina is, at least, on the move.
“The scariest revolution of all,” says her father, is the one that begins with the man—or woman—you see in the mirror.