- Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic
“Revolution. Change. The act of shifting things…hopefully for the better. Recognition that things ‘as is’ is not good enough. Too much ignorance. Too much apathy. Not enough self-lessness. Greed and corruption. Ignoring basic human suffering. Ignoring basic human need. Negligence. Revolution is the man in the mirror. Change is self. The man in the mirror. The scariest revolution there is…”
Ex-convict Kenyatta Shakur recites those words near the end of act one in Dominique Morisseau’s thought-provoking drama “Sunset Baby.” He’s staring down the barrel of a camera, making a video for his daughter Nina. Back in the early ‘80s, Kenyatta was a revolutionary; an urban Robin Hood who preached Black Lives Matter decades before the word hashtag was invented. He was a well-known member of the Black Liberation movement, fighting against the sudden rush of crack cocaine flooding inner-city streets and harboring African refugees. He also went to prison for robbing an armored vehicle in a botched attempt at a political statement. In the process of his tireless political anarchy and sacrificial incarceration, Kenyatta abandoned his lover, Ashanti X, and their young daughter. Crushed by the pressures of being a single parent, Ashanti forgot her own civil rights mission and sunk into a deadly drug addiction As it turns out, the man in the mirror is not the martyr he once believed himself to be.
Thirty years later and the world is still a mess. His lover did not take up the mantle of activism. His daughter is living the exact life he was fighting against. Nina, named after the legendary Ms. Simone, was “going to be our revolution,” according to her father, yet she’s a 30-something-year-old drug dealer and thief. As Kenyatta arrives at her grungy apartment one afternoon and sees her for the first time in decades – Nina with her painted face and hooker boots, icy and fiery at the same time – you can practically read the question on his face: what exactly was I fighting for?
This question lies at the heart of “Sunset Baby,” currently running at New Haven’s Collective Consciousness Theatre [CCT]. Morisseau’s play is dense with such ruminations on revolution, race, fatherhood and the serious impact even our most well-intentioned decisions can have. The names she selects for her characters – Nina, Kenyatta Shakur, Ashanti X – are loaded with references to Black activists and musicians. There’s a deep sense of history in her play, despite one character’s assertion that “history is bullshit, past don’t do a damn thing but keep you choking on bad memories,” and a keen commentary on 21st-century urban life. But Morisseau’s play is also a domestic drama; a lyrical, engaging family portrait that rarely gets too bogged down in posturing. For all its four-letter words and contemporary flavor, the archetype of “Sunset” wouldn’t be out of place in a Chekhov play.
When Kenyatta (regally played by Terrence Riggins, a CCT favorite) arrives on Nina’s doorstep, he’s looking for a series of letters her mother wrote, but never sent, while he was in prison. The time he spent locked up and the lonely years after his release have turned the once-fiery rebel into a softer man. His eyes are weary, his posture open, his voice hoarse after a lifetime of talking too much. The resulting years have had the opposite effect on Nina (Tamika Pettway). She’s “hard, tight and unforgiving,” an impenetrable hustler who wears her weave, tight clothes and hoop earrings like a suit of armor. When she dares take them off – alone at home, a perfect selected Nina Simone song playing on her iPod, or in the company of her boyfriend Damon (Kingston Farady) – the cracks begin to show a scared, vulnerable girl who dreams of escaping inner-city life. She obsessively watches the Travel Channel and plans intricate fantasies of moving to Paris or London.
The MacGuffin letters spur a number of scenes set in Nina’s apartment (David Sepulveda designs the busy, lived in set) and acted by a terrific three-person ensemble. Riggins, who is no stranger to playing charismatic leaders browbeaten by a cruel world, brings gravitas and warmth to Kenyatta with just the right amount of edge, offering glimmers of the political firebrand he used to be. Pettway, last seen in CCT’s “Milk Like Sugar,” gives a grounded, lived-in performance in a multifaceted role. As her boyfriend and sounding-board, Farady (and Morisseau) breathes new life into the archetypical drug dealing gangster with baby mama problems. His Damon has kind, intelligent eyes and a propensity to spit knowledge about the Brazilian caste system, American history and Ethiopian honey wine. Like with Nina, you get the acute sense that, if life had dealt him a different hand, Damon could be teaching college classes or running his own NGO. It’s a magnetic performance, one that shows a lot of potential from Mr. Farady, who is new to this company.
“Sunset Baby,” directed with finesse by Jenny Nelson, is another entry in CCT’s catalog of politically-charged theater exploring the underbelly of African American life. Even if it doesn’t pack quite the emotional wallop of their last show, “Topdog/Underdog,” this is another well-timed choice for CCT, a group who adroitly plays to their strengths.
During “Sunset,” I was reminded of a quote by famed critic Roger Ebert: “We are born into a box of space and time. We are who we are and we're going to be that person until we die. But…movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to have a different belief.”
Roger is right, but I dare suggest that theater can be an even more powerful tool for empathy. The magic ingredient at CCT lies in this distinction. To get to your seats, you must physically walk through Nina’s front door and into her apartment. Even the back row is only feet away from the un-mic’d performers and those in the front can feel the wood floor creak when an actor walks across the stage. There is an unabashed voyeurism in their shows, a sense of watching an intimate conversation you shouldn’t be privy too. But that’s exactly what makes CCT and “Sunset Baby” so powerful. In that black box – and in all great theater, really – audience and actor become one with no screen in between them. I may have a very different background and life than most characters in Collective Consciousness’ shows, but each time I sit there and think, oh, I know them. I know them.
“Sunset Baby” runs through March 11 in New Haven, CT. For more information, visit their website: http://socialchangetheatre.org/.