In Dominique Morisseau’s ‘Sunset Baby’ We Feel Rather than Know

When Socrates banished theater from the Republic, it was because of its ability to fool. Weak minds, Plato wrote, would be so convinced by what they saw they would lose all ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, between poet and pretender. Dialogue, of course, was the biggest offender – how could anyone pretend to inhabit the mind of someone else?  

Walking out of Signature Theater in February, my brother had trouble believing any of Sunset Baby’s lines had been written down, let alone come from one person. While it’s hard to say if Plato could have ever pictured a play about the daughter of black power revolutionaries, it is almost certain he would have objected to the kind of verbal volleyball that award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau is known for, a masterful understanding of the way that people speak. The words sound as if they are lifted straight from the characters’ consciousness – so seamless and constant that a performer described it like taking a breath. It’s easy to think it’s real. 

Award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau has a masterful understanding of the way that people speak.

This is not, by any means, an every-man kind of story, but Dominique makes it authentic nonetheless. Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby), a leading figure in a Black Panther Party-like organization, comes back into his estranged daughter Nina’s (Moses Ingram) life suddenly in search of the letters that her mother, another Panther, left when she died a painful addiction-ridden death. These letters, addressed to Kenyatta but never sent, are supposedly worth thousands of dollars to scholars and are hidden in the back of a painting on stage right. Nina hustles and slings drugs with her boyfriend Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), not looking for a relationship with her father, much less a revolution. 

Kenyatta begins the show with a cryptic, large-minded recording of himself, which he delivers in real time and is projected a la VHS on the stage’s back wall. Grandiose statements about revolution abound – “Too much apathy… revolution is the man in the mirror” – with clear father/daughter subtext, continuing intermittently in his only real moments of vulnerability. Dominique asks us to consider a tension between ideology and practice: how do we reconcile this noble activist to the absent father that Nina knew? Can he be problematic in his personal life and still a great man? The world seems to idolize Kenyatta, but it takes us being put in Nina’s thigh high blue boots to hear his words as “intellectual masturbation.” A great production makes us forget its specifics aren’t real, but a masterful one makes that reflect on the universal. 

The plot description barely calls for a third character, so it might come as a shock that not only does Nina’s boyfriend, Damon, feature just as heavily as the father/daughter duo, but that J. Alphonse Nicholson absolutely steals the show. It would be easy for him to be little more than a foil to Kenyatta, as an absent father who will likely bear the same resentment from his son that Nina does. A particularly moving scene towards the end of the play finds Nicholson being cradled by Nina as he breaks down, forgetting his son’s birthday and asking what he’ll remember about his father in 30 years. We’re let in to a more empathetic side of Kenyatta through this, coloring and shading the black and white narrative of absent parents. 

Click image to enlarge.

This could easily be Damon’s primary purpose in the text, but it is not. Dominique, in her approximation of the real, makes the relationship between him and Nina feel authentic – not just Kenyatta’s foil, she makes him into a person in his own right. This is, due in a large part to Alphonse Nicholson’s positively four dimensional performance, which was punctuated by real tears, shoulders heaving as Nina gently stroked his back. He himself had a son when he was 19. 

“One of the things that draws you to Dominique’s work is that you see yourself,” he said at the talkback. “You see your people, you see people that you know.” 

This after-show talkback, which is part of a ‘Student Night’ series that makes Signature Theater’s season accessible to all audiences, featured not just the three actors, but Dominique herself. Here, she spoke about her own personal connection to the material – not only is she the daughter of an activist, she also found vulnerable videos of him and it was like the first time she ever really saw her father. The lobby outside the theater finds a photo of Dominique at 2 years old, sitting on the hood of the car, overlooking the sun setting in California. “Sunset Baby,” indeed. 

Dominique is one of the most prominent playwrights of our generation.

The play is, however, not primarily autobiographical – her father, while giving her ideas of activism, was primarily a computer systems analyst. Sunset Baby has stronger inspirations in historical figures in the Black Liberation Movement and Nina’s namesake, Nina Simone, both of which are written about in a guide for Signature Theater. A thread can be traced, for example, between the older generation figures of the play and Afeni Shakur, a member of the infamous Panther 21 and eventual mother to rapper Tupac Shakur. His stepfather, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, spent 60 years in prison, and in this piece we see Dominique asking what that would have been like for Tupac or his half-sister – what would happen if this father figure had come back? Mutulu died in 2023, six months after being released from prison. 

These questions, which the show seems poised to answer, are ever-present throughout Sunset Baby, and Dominique shines in making you feel them rather than just understand. This, however, is mostly from Nina’s perspective. The only time the script falters is with the character of Kenyatta himself, who, by all description, should be the central focal point of the show, but is more akin to a plot device in practice. The vagueness of his recordings, while intriguing, never lets us fully into his emotional state – and imagine how powerful it could have been. There is the sense that he is never fully himself throughout the play, always putting on a performance for someone, whether that be for Nina, Damon, or the camera. 

Dominique is one of the most prominent playwrights of our generation, a Tony award nominee and MacArthur genius, and it is no surprise that her work is the best we’ve seen Off-Broadway this season. We love her for precisely the reasons Plato wouldn’t have – in a way few other artists are, she is able to make us feel, to breathe. It’s a kind of magic to make us forget what we’re hearing is fiction.

© Catherine Sawoski (4/16/24) — Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Dominique Morisseau’s guide to the history behind Sunset Baby.

Buy a copy of the Sunset Baby script here

Browse her other works on her website

Check out other productions coming up at the Signature Theatre.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Moses Ingram in a production still of the play “Sunset Baby,” written by playwright Dominique Morisseau, at the Signature Theatre in NYC. Photo by Marc J. Franklin (2024). All Rights Reserved.

Middle Photo: Production still of the play “Sunset Baby,” written by playwright Dominique Morisseau, at the Signature Theatre in NYC. Photo by Marc J. Franklin (2024). All Rights Reserved.

Bottom Photo: Dominique Morisseau arrives at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in NYC on June 9, 2019. Photo Credit: Erik Pendzich / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID:TD3D4Y

Tags: Black female playwright, Black Panther Party, Catherine Sawoski, Dominique Morisseau, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Moses Ingram, review, Russell Hornsby, Signature Theatre, Sunset Baby, Theater, theater review

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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