Harvey Gardner Moore and DeWanda Wise in Sunset Baby
Sunset Baby, the rather innocuous title of Dominique Morisseau's new play that's just opened in a Labyrinth Theater Company production, belies the intensity and power of her wonderfully brutal and thought-provoking work.
At its core, the three-character play is simply something of a thriller, examining what happens when Kenyatta (John Earl Jelks), a one-time leader of a Black revolutionary movement, seeks out his adult daughter Nina (DeWanda Wise) after the death of her mother. Kenyatta knows that there are letters that his late lover had written him while he had been in prison, He'd like to have them.
Nina, who's been besieged with offers from scholars and publishers for her mother's writings, isn't at all happy to see the dad who was absent for most of her life, and doesn't think that there's any reason she should give him what he's looking for. After all, the world at large has been putting a pretty hefty price tag on the things she's inherited, and it could be enough for her to move out of her derelict Bronx apartment (a grime-infected wonder from scenic designer Lee Savage) and away from her life of hustling drugs on the streets with her boyfriend Damon (Harvey Gardner Moore).
With Sunset Baby, Morisseau, however, has not just written another play about the uneasy reunion of a parent and child, but rather interweaves the familiar story with a richly intricate exploration of what a legacy between generations can be. It's not just about the letters, but rather the spiritual, psychological and even socioeconomic bequests that a parent can leave for his or her kids. When Nina looks at her father and announces "This is your progress, nigga. Me. Here! I’m your fuckin’ progress. This is what you achieved." it's a punch in the gut - to both Kenyatta and theatergoers.
The reason the moment has such a profound impact is that both Morisseau's play (which also looks at what impact Damon's absentee fathering might be having on his unseen grade school age son) and director Kamilah Forbes' deliberate, nuanced production have been building to the electrifying and heartbreaking outburst. Further Wise, as she does throughout the production, delivers the moment with layers of complex emotion. It's colored with hard, weary pragmatism, child-like hurt, and burning rage.
Jelks' and Moore's performances are equally modulated and multifaceted. Jelks's turn simultaneously captures Kenyatta's almost icy detachment and his incredible warmth, for both his daughter and for the woman he loved. Further, Jelks delivers some of Morisseau's most lyrical passages with finesse: the brief monologues that punctuate scenes spoken in front of a video camera (projection design by Kate Freer) and projected live against the back wall of the stage.
And in his portrayal of the confused, articulate and volatile Damon, Moore is the epitome of ease and assurance. Perhaps most important, he can make some of the play's most darkly comic moments laughably funny while never turning them into pedestrian or clichéd gags.
The exemplary work in Sunset Baby also extends Esosa's keenly observed costumes, particularly two of Nina's mini-skirt ensembles, Jen Schriever's atmospheric lighting design; and sound designer Amatus-sami Karim Ali's jazz-laced soundscape with its plethora of Nina Simone classics: tunes that gorgeously echo this marvelous play's moods and themes.
---- Andy Propst
Sunset Baby plays at the Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street). For more information and tickets, visit: labtheater.org.
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