Dobama Theatre’s ‘Sunset Baby’ rises to the occasion
By Bob Abelman
In a season that champions the work of six award-winning women, Dobama Theatre could not have chosen a more popular, powerful or problematic playwright than Dominique Morisseau for its opening production.
In terms of popularity, the young Morisseau ranks No. 5 on American Theatre’s list of the 20 most-produced playwrights of 2017-18, just above Arthur Miller.
Her powerful plays take marginalized people – particularly African-Americans who are marginalized within their own inner-city community – and give them a story and a voice.
This voice reflects the rhythms and cadence of urban dialect imbued with an intelligence and eloquence that is often a stumbling block in productions that see these characters as archetypes rather than real and complex individuals.
This is not the case with Dobama Theatre’s current production of Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” a play that opened off-Broadway in 2013 and is receiving its Ohio premiere. Under Justin Emeka’s direction, it is superb on every level and holds its audience’s emotions hostage from start to finish.
This play, at its core, is about unrequited love.
It revolves around Nina (Mary-Francis Miller), the daughter of an estranged and imprisoned father and a drug-addicted and now-dead mother, both former revolutionaries in the Black Liberation Movement.
Her father, Kenyatta Shakur (Greg White), decided long ago that love is a liability that makes targets of family and friends, and that it is impossible to build a world and a home at the same time. He arrives at Nina’s doorstep, still deeply guarded and unable to connect, looking for a packet of love letters that are now in Nina’s possession, written to him by his late wife, Ashanti X, when he was in prison. Those letters offer him a bittersweet glimpse of something he had willingly sacrificed but now laments.
Nina is the scarred, self-destructive and disillusioned victim of this sacrifice. She has her mother’s eyes and Type-A personality, is a drug dealer and a scam artist, and her pain is the price paid by the children of revolutionaries. Nina is holding onto those letters for dear life since they are the only thing her mother ever gave her.
She has signed on with Damon (Ananias J. Dixon), who is the victim of a rebellious deadbeat Dad without a cause and, so, has become one himself. He’d like to get his hands on those letters and deliver them to the highest bidder so he can escape the poverty, this place and his aching soul.
All this occurs in Nina’s distressed apartment, designed by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, where the characters circle one another and reveal their respective truths.
When alone, Kenyatta’s lament takes the form of poignant moments of private self-disclosure and Nina’s defensiveness fleetingly fades as she attempts a graceful plié or arabesque that no one will see. These meditations are accompanied by the music of Nina Simone, our heroine’s namesake, while still and animated images of former black revolutionaries are projected onto the apartment walls, courtesy of designers Jeremy T. Dobbins and T. Paul Lowry, respectively.
Damon, insecure and anguished, is never alone and most in need of accompaniment.
The acting in this production is always engrossing and displays a real mastery of Morisseau’s intense poetry and the aforementioned intelligence and eloquence that makes it distinctive and so very interesting. It is impossible not to care about these people, despite their flaws, foibles and felonies, because of these performances.
Upcoming Dobama productions feature plays by Annie Baker, Karen Zacarias, Alice Birch, Jennifer Haley and Melissa James Gibson. The theater is off to a grand start with this one. CV
“Sunset Baby” at Dobama Theatre
WHERE: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through Sept. 30
TICKETS & INFO: $33–$35, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 14, 2018.
Lead image: Mary-Francis Miller as Nina and Ananias J. Dixon as Damon. | Photo / Steve Wagner Photography