Actor’s Express is presenting Dominique Morisseau’s drama “Sunset Baby,” directed by Amanda Washington, the Express’ Associate Artistic Director; the play runs through Oct. 16.
Ms. Morisseau, a MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow, has become quite a force in American theatre; her work often focuses on the richness and complexity of the African American experience. She’s known especially for her award-winning trilogy “The Detroit Project.”
Atlanta theatre-goers (including me) were riveted by her powerful, moving “Pipeline” at Horizon Theatre in 2019.
“Sunset Baby” explores a young woman’s (Nina, played by Brittany Deneen) journey from a brutal existence to her own liberation. Her father Kenyatta (Eddie Bradley, Jr.), a former revolutionary in the Black Power movement, has come home to Brooklyn to mend their relationship—and get some letters that his deceased wife Ashanti wrote him.
But nothing is as simple as it seems. Kenyatta is unprepared for the hardened, modern woman Nina has become. She is a drug dealer who, along with her boyfriend Damon (Sariel Toribio), supplements their income with the occasional robbery. She has no time for her father ,who abandoned her as a child and left her mother to die broken-hearted and addicted to drugs.
About those letters: the story sort of hinges on them. We’re told these missives –never mailed love letters written by Ashanti to Kenyatta – are worth thousands of dollars. They are the sole legacy Ashanti left for her daughter Nina. But why are the letters worth so much money? We’re never told. Nina has them hidden; neither man can find them.
We’re also never told why Kenyatta was so revered by so many, almost a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. figure; hence, he is rather a mystery. And the boyfriend Damon is likewise a puzzle; he seems attractive and ingratiating at first, especially while he and Nina are dreaming together of moving to London or some world capital. But then he betrays her. How? You’ll have to see the play.
Playwright Morisseau is heavily dependent on skilled, charismatic actors to make this play work; at Actor’s Express she has them. Brittany Deneen’s Nina is the lynchpin of the piece: She has to start at the top of her emotional range with anger and hurt that has been seething in her for years; only later does she reveal the abandoned little girl inside. When she puts on make-up, it’s as if she is arming herself to fight a hostile world. Ms. Deneen’s work here is excellent.
Mr. Bradley has the gravitas to make Kenyatta memorable, particularly in his fine monologues. And Sariel Toribio has an admirable ease and flexibility; he makes a rather nebulous character work. I think this actor has a lot of untapped talent; remember his name.
“Sunset Baby” itself is a pretty grim and unrelenting 90 minutes with no intermission, but it’s a powerful, gutsy, three-character sucker punch of a play.
Get tickets and more information at actors-express.com.