A child is a promise you send into the future. Someone said that to a reporter last week, trying to search out meaning from the rubble of the Baltimore fires.
Sunset Baby tells the story of Ashanti X and Kenyatta Shakur, lovers and black revolutionary leaders in the 80’s. But his cadre was infiltrated by government forces and its members killed. He tried to rob an armored car, failed, was arrested, and sent to jail. His Warrior Woman became a crack addict and died shortly before the play begins. The promise they sent to the future was Nina (Valeka J. Holt), who they named for the singer Nina Simone.
You want this play to tell us something. Something about disruption. Something about change. Something about the aftermath of the underground movements. Nina Simone’s gravelly voice of protest provides a soundtrack for nearly every scene. The show’s logo is the raised Black Power fist. The literary dynamite has been set.
But playwright Dominique Morisseau chooses not to light that fuse and decides instead to tell us about the failure of an absentee father. It’s a little mystifying and, frankly, disappointing.
When Ashanti died, she left letters written, but not sent, to Kenyatta in jail. As word spread of her death among scholars, news of the letters emerge and publishers are willing to pay Nina for the rights to the letters. It’s her only legacy, and she must decide what to do with them.
Nina Simone’s bluesy “Feelin’ Good” plays as lights rise. An old futon couch, its back covered by an orange crocheted afghan and a CD player are some of very few personal items in Nina’s otherwise sterile apartment. Her ride is downstairs. She slips on black plastic knee high boots to finish her hooker outfit. It’s time to hit the streets.
The promise Ashanti and Kenyatta sent into the future has become Nina, a hardened hustler, who is working in partnership with her lover, Damon (the dynamic Manu Kusasi), a young crime lord. Their business is selling crack and robbing johns, with Nina as the bait. Nina cares only about money and the future it will buy her, not the tragedies her drugs and crimes are setting loose on the streets.
She opens the door, and facing her is the father she barely knows and who she blames for her mother’s addiction and early grave. He wants to read the letters, which Nina refuses to show him.
It’s difficult to understand this point. Since money is Nina’s sole motivation, why not simply sell the letters to a publisher – she already has an offer for $10,000, she says – and let Kenyatta read them along with everyone else?
Morisseau leads us through the story with a series of monologues by Kenyatta, set between scenes of his encounters with Nina and Damon. The Kenyatta which Russell shows us is a subdued, considered, quiet man. His monologues – actually, a video which he is preparing for Nina – are a little tedious, and explain incidents which are better shown in later scenes with Nina. He seems emotionally detached, even academic; it is unclear whether this is Russell’s take on the text, or director Joseph Ritsch’s, or Morisseau’s intentions. Regardless, the monologues make us care less about Kenyatta as a character, and thus we care less about his struggle with coming to grips as an absentee father.
April 29 – May 17
at the Horowitz Center
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: PWYC (Wednesdays and Thursdays) plus $40 other performances
Tickets or call (443) 518-1500
On the other hand, I bought everything that Holt and Kumasi did together; in Kumasi’s portrayal, I could sense Damon’s machinations, half-cynical, half desperate and his own struggles to be a father to his eight year old son; I could feel Nina’s rage and determination in Holt’s authentic performance. The most satisfying scene, another credit to Holt, is a wordless one. It’s early morning. Nina is stripping off her costume: the boots, the wig, the oversize earrings. Nina Simone sings the plaintive “Black is the color of my true love’s hair.” She puts on an old bathrobe, sits cross legged on the couch, reaches back with both hands, wrapping the afghan around her, and cries into its embrace.
The play, in other words, has moments when its heart shows through. But the table was set for so much more.
What lessons did Ashanti X pass on to her daughter? Why did she write the letters and never mail them? What did Kenyatta think when he realized his daughter was selling drugs and robbing the community he fought to raise up? Where was his intention to act as her father at that moment? And has the struggle for liberation really come down to a generation which cares about nothing more than getting over at any cost?
If you put potent historical symbols out there, isn’t it your responsibility to address them in a conscious way? Not for those who were there, but for those who weren’t. Every play, like every child, is also a promise we send into the future.
Sunset Baby by Dominique Morrisseau . Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch . Featuring Jefferson A. Russell, Valeka J. Holt, and Manu Kumasi . Set design: David Ettinger . Lighting design: Dan Covey . Sound design: Bryan Schlein . Costume design: Julie A. Potter . Properties design: Mollie Singer. Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Lorraine Treanor.