Scorching ‘Sunset Baby’ makes history personal
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A half century before Black Lives Matter became the activist organization of this moment, there was the Black Panther Party, the Oakland, California-bred revolutionary black nationalist organization founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (with New York-based Stokely Carmichael among its celebrity spokesmen). And they grabbed the headlines and the imagination, if not quite the future they expected.
The legacy of that movement of the 1960s is still open to fierce debate. But what is often neglected in all the talk is any consideration of the fallout that period had on the children of the “true believers,” as well as on the graying members of the group itself. That is where Dominique Morisseau, the Detroit-born writer, picks up the pieces in her scorching drama “Sunset Baby.” The play is now receiving its Chicago premiere in a volcanic TimeLine Theatre production brilliantly directed by Ron OJ Parson, and performed by a trio of actors — with a starmaking turn by actress Anji White — sure to leave you gasping for breath.
At the center of the play is Nina (White), the sexy, hard-edged, well-educated twentysomething daughter of a faded black radical, Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear), from who she has been estranged since childhood. Nina lives alone in a crummy apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, and she and her smart but thuggish boyfriend, Damon (Kelvin Roston Jr.), work as a sort of latter-day Bonnie and Clyde, dealing crack cocaine and harboring a plan to accrue just enough money to let them move to Europe or somewhere more exotic, and start a new life.
When: Through April 10
Where: TimeLine Theater, 615 W. Wellington
Info: (773) 281-8463; www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission
Nina, whose parents named her after Nina Simone, is still mourning the death of her mother — a woman who adored Kenyatta, was devastated when he abandoned his family for “the movement” and sank into depression and addiction (though in exactly what order remains a bit fuzzy). Nina’s mother left her only one thing: a treasure trove of fervent love letters from her Kenyatta years, which are now being hotly pursued by publishers and academics around the globe.
Word of the existence of these letters also has reached Kenyatta. And he suddenly makes contact with his long-ignored daughter in the hope that he can retrieve them. The father-daughter meetings are brutal, with pain and rage on both sides. Damon (another unreliable father, whose angry ex-wife is only part of the reason he rarely sees his young son) is hot for a financial reward, and engages in his characteristic hustle.
What is the responsibility of a parent to a child? Why does fatherhood (and Morisseau speaks to the black community here) so often come paired with failure, fear, shame, guilt, the quest for freedom and what Kenyatta describes as “unpreparedness,” even when it also is bundled with such love? And is it ever possible to make amends?
“Sunset Baby” examines many aspects of that incredibly complex bond, a bond made even more complicated by the state of society, although Morisseau does not let these fathers off the hook for that reason.
Parsons, who has staged superb productions of “A Raisin in the Sun” and a number of August Wilson plays, brings a different sort of feverish intensity to this play. And White’s raw, fearless performance as Anji is simply uncanny as she radically transforms herself from one scene to the next in ways that go far beyond all the superficial changes of outfits, wigs and makeup, and reveals both her character’s knife-like, slutty surface and agonizing vulnerability. It is, quite simply, one of the more breathtaking performances you will see all season.
Van Lear’s edgy, soulful, layered work as a man trying to come to terms with both a lost movement and a lost daughter is ideally nuanced. And Roston brings an amped-up sexuality to every scene, suggesting both brutality as well as the anguish that comes from feeling trapped by life.
Morisseau is no doubt busy in New York now, where “Skeleton Crew” (the final installment in her Detroit trilogy) is receiving its premiere by the Atlantic Theater Company. But somewhere before the run of this TimeLine production is over she should book a flight to Chicago to see this unforgettable rendering of her work.