Chicago Theatre Review
A Stage Filled With Rage
Sunset Baby – Timeline Theatre
Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s gritty one-act play, now enjoying a Chicago premiere after its Off-Broadway premiere three years ago, overflows with rage. It’s a story about survivors set amid the dirty slums of New York City’s Lower East Side among the world of violence, theft and drug deals. But Ms. Morisseau’s play is also a drama about love, trust and forgiveness, as well. Following the first of Kenyatta’s several genuinely sincere monologues, delivered throughout the play and video recorded by the older African American activist, Nina enters her ghetto apartment. She stuffs her sensuous body into her hooker drag, used to lure unsuspecting men so her boyfriend Damon can rob them. Applying the wig, warpaint and a provocative wardrobe, Nina’s about to head to work when the door buzzer unexpectedly sounds. Kenyatta, Nina’s estranged father, is paying her a surprise visit and the real drama is about to begin.
Rage fills the tiny stage as Nina explodes with anger, hurt and frustration, accusing and condemning this man who, as her father, abandoned both five-year-old Nina and her mother, the late black activist Ashanti X, and Nina. He’s returned to beg Nina for the cache of letters her mother left to her, missives Ashanti wrote to Kenyatta while he was in prison, but which were never mailed. Kenyatta, once the fabled, powerful leader of an underground black power movement, and a survivor of years of pain, isn’t seeking the letters for financial gain, although they’re rumored to be worth a fortune. He earnestly seeks to relive the fond memories of a better time and, perhaps, rekindle a relationship with his daughter. But that’s not going to be easy with Nina (named for singer, Nina Simone), a tough, unforgiving young woman who’s survived everything life has thrown at her. She snarls, “And here’s daddy, comin’ back to be all sentimental. But there’s nothin’ sentimental about a dead revolution.”
Her lover Damon is also a survivor. He’s a strong, uncompromising man who treats Nina like a possession, loving her in his own way, and viewing her mainly as his much-needed accomplice in crime (he sees their relationship as an African American version of Bonnie and Clyde). Damon is also the baby daddy of a little boy he seldom gets to see. In some ways he’s a younger, contemporary version of Kenyatta since they’re two generations of men who’ve not only had a violent past and committed crimes, but are also participants of parental absenteeism. Nina recognizes the parallels between these two and she’s not about to have the past repeat itself. Nina also dreams of a finer life in Paris, or maybe London but, for this to happen, some changes need to be made.
Ms. Morisseau’s play is character driven and succinctly involves conversations about social and political issues, all liberally peppered with profanity and anger. For such a passionate and powerful piece of theatre there’s remarkably very little actual violence on stage. Wisely and dynamically directed by Ron OJ Parson, this drama grabs hold of the audience and never lets go. His production, which features the talents of three exceptionally talented actors, is a story about love, trust and a hope for change.
The always marvelous Phillip Edward Van Lear is both headstrong and heartbreaking as Kenyatta, a father desperate to reconnect with his past while mending the error of his former ways. The pain and intensity in this fine actor’s face and body say more than even his eloquently delivered dialogue. Kelvin Roston, Jr. is commanding in his TimeLine debut. Finding the subtle vulnerability of this street tough, those moments when being a divorced daddy touch his very heart and soul, Mr. Roston allows his sentiments to unexpectedly surface in the face of so much fury and determination to continue surviving.
But the real star of this production is the incomparable Anji White as Nina. It’s impossible to take your eyes away from her, whether she’s quietly grooming herself for the next hit, spending a relaxing moment with a book and a glass of wine or (more often) violently launching into another verbal attack on the men in her life. This actress, while having appeared around town in several solid productions, is poised to be the next big star. Her final scene at the end of this play says everything about this character that we’ve suspected, even though the actress is never given a word to utter. In her eyes and body language we see a hope for new beginnings and we fervently wish her the best because Nina deserves nothing less.
This emotionally charged, gut-wrenching production continues TimeLine’s legacy, a 19th season of bringing history to life with intelligent excellence. Dominique Morisseau’s new play offers thinking audiences a soul-shattering theatrical experience that’s bound to stay with them long after the final curtain. This rage-filled stage of characters ultimately offers theatergoers a story of love, trust and forgiveness that surpasses everything they may have thus far known or experienced.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 13-April 10 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-281-8463 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com