Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 20 February 2024

Review: Sunset Baby at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre ⋄ 30 Jan-10 March

A new Dominique Morisseau play leaves Detroit behind to its detriment, but picks up some excellent performances.

Patrick Maley

“Sunset Baby” at Signature Theatre (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

“Ain’t nothin’ sentimental about a dead revolution,” says Nina to her father as she kicks him out of her apartment, exhausted by his efforts to lean on her emotions to get what he wants from her. The line captures nicely the themes and tensions running throughout Dominique Morisseau’s play, Sunset Baby, back in New York after its 2013 premiere in a revival at Signature Theatre. It is a play that tests the lines between sentimentality and emotion—between devotion to others and love of one’s self—as it explores the aftermath of revolutionary ideals slipping away.

Nina (Moses Ingram) lives in an East New York project and makes a living in the drug and robbery trade with her sometimes-live-in boyfriend, Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson). At the play’s open, Nina gets an unexpected visit from the father she hasn’t seen in years, Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby), who wants to talk about Nina’s recently deceased mother, Ashanti X.

Kenyatta and Ashanti X were prominent revolutionaries in the Black Liberation Movement, and it turns out that after Kenyatta was hauled to jail, Ashanti wrote him scores of love letters that she never sent. Ashanti left the unmailed letters to Nina in her will, and Kenyatta has come to collect. But Nina refuses, both because she has no love for the father she feels abandoned them, but also because Nina is suspicious of his motives. Although Kenyatta claims the letters were for him so he should have them in order to understand the feelings of his lost lover, publishers and other interested parties are offering big money for the letters, and Nina suspects her father is looking only for a payday. Besides, Ashanti gave the letters specifically to her daughter, a gift Nina treasures.

All this exposition rolls out in the first fifteen-or-so minutes of the play and the rest of its 100-minute runtime examines the repercussions of this scene. Neither Nina nor Kenyatta seems willing to budge from their position. Damon finds himself in the middle, as Kenyatta tries to access the letters through him, and Damon’s full efforts at manipulation over Nina spring into effect.

Sunset Baby is not, in truth, Morisseau at her best. She is a playwright of great skill for crafting complex people facing unique challenges that are usually informed by the environment of their lives. In some ways it feels like Morisseau setting a play outside her favorite location of Detroit puts Sunset Baby on shaky ground (although not being in Detroit did nothing to hinder the brilliance of Pipeline). The play deals with big, important themes, but feels unmoored from the specificity of the characters’ struggles. Throughout the play, Morrisseau asks us to consider the sacrifices these characters make in order to reach for dreams, or maybe just peace of mind, and she does so in high-flown speeches where characters announce the commitments that define and drive them. But because they are so busy speechifying, it can be difficult to get to know these characters fully.

Still, under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, the play features three excellent performances. Hornsby shows his familiar mastery for defining a character balancing precariously at the union of dignity, pain, humility, and assertiveness. Nicholson does great work to show the complex self-awareness broiling inside Damon as he tries to define a place for himself in the world. The play asks the most of Ingram, who delivers with a fine performance of a woman who knows very much who she is, but struggles to discover and define who she is going to become.

The play, in the end, feels drafty, but on the strength of excellent performances, the Signature production reveals a host of compelling ideas flowing throughout its exploration of family, commitment, and independence.


Patrick Maley

Patrick Maley, PhD is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law and author of After August: Blues, August Wilson, and American Drama (University of Virginia Press, 2019). His work also appears in Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, Comparative Drama, Field Day Review, Eugene O'Neill Review, Irish Studies Review, and New Hibernia Review. He also reviews theater regularly for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com.

Review: Sunset Baby at Signature Theatre Show Info


Produced by Signature Theatre

Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III

Written by Dominique Morisseau

Scenic Design Wilson Chin, COSTUME DESIGN: Emilio Sosa

Lighting Design Alan C. Edwards

Sound Design Curtis Craig, Jimmy Keys aka "J.Keys"

Cast includes Russell Hornsby, Moses Ingram, J. Alphonse Nicholson

Link
Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1hr 40min


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