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Sunset Baby

Dominique Morisseau's drama gets a Midwest premiere at TimeLine.

Anji White and Kelvin Roston Jr. in Sunset Baby, directed by Ron O.J. Parson, at TimeLine Theatre.
(courtesy of TimeLine Theater)

The Chicago premiere of playwright Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby comes with fortuitous timing. The drama centers on the legacy of a legendary black activist; its opening coincides with roiling unrest in the city. Activists from the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups have dominated the headlines all winter, closing down highways and shopping districts while demanding changes in police tactics.

With Sunset Baby, Morisseau looks at the world of an activist long after his days in the headlines have vanished. Decades past his heyday leading the charge for social justice, Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear) still commands awe and respect — except when it comes to the daughter who is all that's left of his family. Nina (Anji White) is a drug dealer who supplements her income with the occasional robbery. She has no time for the father who abandoned her as a child and left her mother, Ashanti X, to die broken-hearted and addicted to drugs. When Kenyatta shows up Nina's doorstep, her apartment becomes an emotional battleground.

Directed by Ron O.J. Parson, Sunset Baby dips into themes that are fascinating and inherently dramatic. But its promise is marred by inconsistent characters and plot holes. Morisseau's story hinges on a cache of letters, worth, we're repeatedly told, tens of thousands of dollars. They are never-mailed love letters, written by Ashanti to Kenyatta. They are also the sole legacy Ashanti has left for her daughter. Nina treasures them as both a tangible connection to her late mother and as a lucrative windfall that could allow her to quit dealing and start anew. But Kenyatta wants the letters for himself, and he's willing to do just about anything – including manipulating Nina's boyfriend Damon (Kelvin Rolston Jr.) – to get them. The narrative is grounded in Nina's dilemma: Should she cash in on the letters and use the money to start a new life? Should she give them to her father? Or should she keep the treasured missives for herself?

There are two major problems with the plot. Kenyatta's backstory is sketchy and tough to believe. We're told he was a near-messianic figure, an agent for change comparable to Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. But Morisseau never really lets the audience in on how Kenyatta became so revered, and nothing in Van Lear's understated performance hints at someone with the radiant charisma needed to command a movement. We get a few snippets: He sheltered radicals on the wrong side of the law, for example, but on the whole, Kenyatta remains a two-dimensional cypher.

The second problem comes with the letters. Scholars, we're told, would pay handsomely for Ashanti X's writings. But the playwright never explains why they're so hotly in demand. The audience doesn't need a lot of specifics or details, but it does need something that explains the context that gives them their value. All we're told is that they are love letters, written to a man the audience knows almost nothing about. Those two voids – the content of the letters and the character of Kenyatta – create a plot with sizable holes . Van Lear is an actor of understated dignity and inherent gravitas. But he needs more than that to create a character who is spoken of as a one-of-a-kind leader and catalyst for change even decades after disappearing into prison.

In addition to Kenyatta, Damon is also a character that leaves the audience slightly baffled. He's inconsistent to the point of having a split-personality. Granted, people are filled with contradictions. But Damon's abrupt switch from nice guy to something else entirely seems to come out of nowhere.

Still, Sunset Baby is worth seeing solely for White's performance. Nina goes from battle-hardened to utterly vulnerable and back with an authenticity that cuts to the bone. White travels the spectrum of emotions with a relentless fervor that sweeps you along with it.

Set designer Regina Garcia gives Nina appropriately desperate surroundings, creating an apartment that all but reeks of sorrow and dreams deferred. Costume designer Christine Pascual goes for the obvious juxtapositions when dressing Nina: Thigh-high boots, elaborate wigs and second-skin micro-minis when she is headed out to work, PJs and head wraps when she's curled up on the coach for the evening. White's performance doesn't need such heavy-handed visual cues to let the audience know what's going on with Nina. We're all watching her, and rooting for her, throughout .

Yet White's winning performance isn't quite enough to overcome the flaws in Sunrise Baby. Morisseau doesn't explain to us why those letters are so powerful – she simply asks us to believe that they are. The same holds true for Kenyatta – there's nothing in his demeanor that points to someone capable of inciting social protest on a mass scale, yet this is precisely what we're told to believe. Put White in a play that fills in those gaps, and you'd have something truly powerful. As it is, Sunrise Baby is merely engaging.

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