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Sunset Baby

The personal loses to the political in playwright Dominique Morisseau's blistering portrayal of a father and daughter divided by the Black liberation movement.  

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Moses Ingram as Nina and Russell Hornsby as Kenyatta in a scene from Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

“Ain’t nothin’ sentimental about a dead revolution.” Wearing a too-short, too-tight dress, shiny thigh-high boots, and a long fuchsia wig, the twentysomething Nina (Moses Ingram) attempts to plunge these words like a dagger straight into her estranged father’s idealistic heart, which has survived a long prison stretch for an armored truck robbery committed decades ago to aid the Black liberation movement. Coming early in Signature Theatre’s revival of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, it’s obvious Nina’s flinty declaration will never be genuinely up for debate–at least not for Nina–nor should the audience get even passingly optimistic about a dewy-eyed mending of the broken familial bond between Nina and the recently freed Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby). It’s a lot to so quickly take off the dramatic table, but the unrelenting Morisseau does it forthrightly and thoroughly to serve the play’s one overriding objective: being true to Nina.

Admittedly, however, it’s easy to sometimes forget that this three-hander is Nina’s play, because Kenyatta and Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson)–the latter, technically, is Nina’s boyfriend, though a more apt description would be the other possessive guy–talk too much about themselves. But theatergoers shouldn’t fault Morisseau for any of the play’s navel-gazing, testosterone-fueled volubility, because it helps the audience to know Nina better, particularly her steely cynicism. That unyielding, formidable, and immediately apparent viewpoint underlies Nina’s relationship with Damon, a low-level drug dealer who uses Nina as a “pretend hooker” to lure and rob junkies. With cold candor Nina tells Kenyatta that she’s preying on fellow people of color in her East New York community, both stealing from them and helping Damon sell the same poison that killed Nina’s crack-addicted mother, Ashanti X, whose militant reputation has been restored by death.

Moses Ingram as Nina and J. Alphonse Nicholson as Damon in a scene from Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Nina’s unrepentant revelations form another figurative dagger aimed at Kenyatta’s heart, sharpened even further by Nina’s refusal to hand over unmailed letters Ashanti X wrote to Kenyatta Shakur while he was incarcerated. As Nina makes bitterly clear to her father, this history–her mother’s lone bequest–has a couple of costs. There is what sycophantic admirers like academics, the press, and publishing companies are willing to pay for it, as well as the one that actually matters most to Nina: the price Ashanti X endured for loving a man who didn’t return that affection equally. Instead, he gave most of what’s in his heart–now, a vengeful daughter’s tempting target–to social change whose value Nina counts in pennies.

While Ashanti X self-destructively hung on to hope in both Kenyatta and their shared fidelity to a golden future for the oppressed, Nina has no belief in either. She’s become a hollowed-out hustler with dreams that don’t exceed what the Travel Channel superficially promises to trapped souls sick and tired of their disappointing lives. As for Damon, now in his thirties and too old for the streets, he also has developed wanderlust, though, in his case, it must overcome two weights: a young son he’s fitfully raising with a scorned ex-girlfriend and a self-justifying need to constantly intellectualize his bad behavior, especially as it involves violence and mistreating women. It never dawns on Kenyatta and Damon that they are two sides of the same coin, because neither of them can comprehend the similar selfishness beneath their rhetorical differences. Despite depicting such flawed characters, the charismatic Hornsby and Nicholson occasionally stir our sympathies, that is until the brilliant Ingram burns those misplaced feelings to a crisp with a fiery retort or a scorching glare.

J. Alphonse Nicholson as Damon and Russell Hornsby as Kenyatta in a scene from Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Damon perceives himself in Marxian, or to put it theatrically, Brechtian terms: his criminality is a protest against a corrupt capitalist system that perpetuates racism, war, and his own rationally illegal existence in America’s second economy. If Damon is straight out of The Threepenny Opera, it often seems like Nina is destined for an Ibsenian ending, because there’s no way she’s sticking around for that defensive nonsense. The big brown door in the center of scenic designer Wilson Chin’s muted apartment set is also a strong tip-off about what Nina is going to do.

But whereas Ibsen famously offers some feminist possibility for brighter days ahead, that’s much too sanguine a conclusion for Morisseau whose Sunset Baby suggests that she is, in outlook, a spiritual cousin to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, hard-boiled writers who did not doubt the world’s ability to stay rotten. Ably assisted by the noirish lighting design of Alan C. Edwards and an unnerving urban soundscape from Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys, director Steve H. Broadnax III redolently leans into a 1930’s and 1940’s American malaise, which, despite the on-stage presence of cell phones and an IPod, never comes across as anachronistic. That’s because, no matter the crusading efforts made in the intervening years, it’s not.

Moses Ingram as Nina and Russell Hornsby as Kenyatta in a scene from Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Conceivably, one can see a ray of light in the last scene of Sunset Baby, as my companion did, with Nina granting Kenyatta a measure of forgiveness. That interpretation, however, was too much of an about-face for me. Taking in everything that’s preceded those closing moments between father and daughter, there’s another way to understand them: by giving Kenyatta exactly what he wants, Nina finally manages to conquer his emotional defenses to get that dagger in good and deep.

Sunset Baby (through March 10, 2024)

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

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