Review: Sunset Baby, A Drama Ahead of Its Time, Gets a Revival

Signature Theatre mounts a new production of Dominique Morisseau’s early play.

Moses Ingram and Russell Hornsby star in the Signature Theatre revival of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Trust is the most precious resource in Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, now receiving an electrifying off-Broadway revival at Signature Theatre. It’s the intangible force that holds together religious denominations, leads football teams to victory, makes (or breaks) marriages, and generally undergirds all aspects of a complex society. And it’s in short supply here.

Really, why should Nina (Moses Ingram) trust anybody? Her father, the Black revolutionary Kenyatta Shakur (Russell Hornsby), went to prison when she was still a baby, convicted of robbing an armored truck. Her mother, the radical thinker Ashanti X, died brokenhearted and addicted to drugs, but not before writing a series of love notes to Kenyatta that she never mailed and bequeathed to her daughter. Now dad is out of prison and wants the letters, but Nina isn’t so sure she wants to hand them over, knowing how valuable they might be to publishers and academics. “Ain’t nothin’ sentimental about a dead revolution,” she tells Kenyatta, twisting the knife as she lets him know that she now pushes the same kind of poison that killed her mother.

Her partner in crime is Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a charismatic street hustler selling Nina big dreams of a serene life abroad. The letters are even less important to him (they are more important to Nina than she initially lets on) and he sees them as a possible down payment on his big plan. “Ashanti X was a crack head. A fuckin’ crack head,” says the judgmental drug dealer, “And you tryin’ to get sentimental like it mean something to you now.” A self-styled messiah, Damon knows very well that he must demolish the old Gods in order to take their place.

Moses Ingram and J. Alphonse Nicholson star in the Signature Theatre revival of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Since the 2013 debut of Sunset Baby, trust has precipitously eroded in America. The culture has further balkanized, politics have become nastier, and regular Americans have grown increasingly disenchanted with elites and their institutions. In this tale about people operating outside the formal economy, with politics well outside the Overton Window, Morisseau offers a prescient vision of where we’re all headed, something that has become crystal clear 11 years later. While much of the play consists of two-person scenes in which the characters clash over big ideas as filtered through their individual circumstances, layered and specific performances ensure that these characters never feel like mouthpieces in a dramatic essay.

The actors do, however, deliver three distinct visions of how individuals survive under a deficit of trust. Nicholson’s Damon is a bulldozer, simultaneously charming and aggravating as he spouts off his streetlamp philosophy, repackaging criminality as revolution. Through his sly side-eye and stoic silence, Hornsby gives the impression of someone who may have once been as gregarious as Damon, but who now plays his cards much closer to his chest. Only through a series of video diary entries does Hornsby allow us to see the charismatic leader who swept Ashanti off her feet.

This may be why Nina seems distrustful of love, settling for physical contact and intellectual combat in her partnership with Damon. Ingram is hard and inscrutable as Nina, telling her lies and deploying her diversions with such practiced conviction that it’s impossible not to believe her. For our first impression, costume designer Emilio Sosa armors her in thigh-high blue metallic boots, a black pleather dress, and leopard print coat. The don’t-fuck-with-me wig is by J. Jared Janas. It’s in the transitions between scenes, when it’s just us and Nina, that she lets her guard down and we get a fleeting sense of her true priorities.

Russell Hornsby plays Kenyatta in the Signature Theatre revival of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Smartly, director Steve H. Broadnax III stages a production that foregrounds these masterfully nuanced performances. Set designer Wilson Chin evocatively imagines Nina’s East New York apartment, with mostly unadorned walls and a makeshift coffee table made from a milk crate and hamster cage pushed together. Katherine Freer breaks up these scenes of gritty realism with Kenyatta’s video diary, presented live with light embellishments that evoke the ghosts of the past. Songs by Nina Simone underscore several transitions, elegantly fading from the whole house to the small speaker set around Nina’s vintage iPod (sound design by Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys). The set is littered with little artifacts of creature comfort (a box of tea, a half-drunk bottle of Ethiopian wine, a jar of marijuana) meant to make this dreary habitat livable — but it’s palpably apparent that these are just band-aids on a much bigger wound.

Sunset Baby is one of those dramas that has appreciated with age, shining with intensity in the twilight of America’s postwar order. With trust in governments and institutions evaporating by the day, Morisseau points toward the only obvious recourse for regular people: Trust in yourself.

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Sunset Baby

Closed: March 10, 2024