Sunset Baby

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Photo: Marc J Franklin Review
As we have all learned, the past inevitably bumps up against the present. Sometimes it’s a headache, sometimes it’s an opportunity, and sometimes it’s a bit of both. Such is the case of the long-overdue reunion between Kenyatta (the riveting Russell Hornsby), a former Black revolutionary, and his estranged daughter Nina (the magnificent, heartbreaking Moses Ingram), a small-time hustler, in Dominique Morriseau’s bracing 2013 drama “Sunset Baby,” now being given a superb revival at the Signature Theatre Company under Steve H. Broadnax III’s sure-handed direction.

The play cuts right to the chase (after a short scene of Kenyatta videotaping his thoughts about such topics as fatherhood and responsibility) when the two meet – seemingly for the first time in decades -- in Nina’s none-too-fancy East New York apartment (well designed by Wilson Chin), right after she’s stood him up for a public rendezvous.

Animosity, regret and a dash of curiosity instantly fill the air, even as Nina hurries into her work clothes – a tight-fitting dress, thigh-high viny boots and a shocking red wig (perfectly chosen by Emilo Sosa) that she wears to pull off yet another robbery with her partner and lover Damon (an excellent J. Alphonse Nicholson).

As Nina rightly surmises, Kenyatta wants more than to make up for lost time; in fact, one comes to realize he’d never have reconnected with his extremely bitter daughter except for one thing: Nina is in possession of some letters left to her by her late mother (and Kenyatta’s ex), Ashanti X, and for reasons he won’t explain, Kenyatta is desperate to read them.

But does Nina even have them? She says yes, she says no. She claims publishers and historians have offered her tens of thousands of dollars, but if that’s true why hasn’t she taken the money and escaped the life she’s come to hate, with or without Damon? Does having a “legacy” really trump everything else?

For his part, Damon – a smarter-than-he-seems crook who claims to want “out” of his criminal life, even if it means abandoning his young son in the process – seems quite convinced Nina has the letters but doesn’t know where they are. Unsurprisingly, he is all-too-willing to betray Nina (in more ways than one) to get his hands on them.

As a cleverly curated soundtrack of Nina Simone songs (whom our fictional Nina was named for) plays during the many two-character scene changes, this initially specific-seeming drama gains universal appeal. Who hasn’t been screwed up by the unthinking and maybe even good-intentioned actions of their parents? Whose memories have become so selective that they only remember what benefits them – or forget what is inconvenient to their current narrative?

Most importantly, who hasn’t chosen a romantic partner for the reasons of “safety.” “security,” and even “true love” only to find those parameters insufficient or circumstances changed so drastically that the original intent no longer matters? A lot can happen between the sunrise and the sunset of a love affair.

If Kenyatta, Damon, and especially Nina, are often unlikeable characters (at least on the surface), Morriseau’s tender-but-muscular writing and the work of these three extraordinary actors allow us to acknowledge their shortcomings while also piercing their everyday armor. That’s no mean feat, baby.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 2/20/2024
Closing 3/10/2024

Theatre Info
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036