SUNSET BABYBy Dominique Morisseau
Director – Vickie Washington
Set Designer – Rodney Dobbs
Lighting Designer – Nikki Deshea Smith
Costume Design – Barbara O’Donoghue
Sound Design – David Lanza
William Earl Ray – Kenyatta
Whitney Coulter - Nina
Christopher Piper – Damon
Photo Credit: Buddy Myers
Reviewed Performance: 6/6/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When you strip away the political diatribes about class struggle and economic rights in Sunset Baby, by Dominique Morisseau, you’re left with fundamental life questions. Can a father and daughter overcome a brutal past to find a relationship? Will she heal from her failed childhood or perpetuate the myth?
Sunset Baby opened this week at Jubilee Theatre in Sundance Square and brings these questions to life. It’s not light fare. No happy songs or hugs and kisses. No musical theater. Rather it’s just hard truth about the struggle for survival in late 20th Century and a story about failed parenthood and how children respond.
Vickie Washington directed Sunset Baby with several challenges built into the script, including a text that emphasizes political posturing over character building. Washington and her design team addressed technical challenges with an innovative solution and she developed a cast who created deeply flawed, but interesting, characters in the midst of common life struggles.
Jubilee’s stage became a dingy, dirty slum apartment in the city. Rodney Dobbs designed faded green walls with plaster missing, brownish panels on which graffiti was drawn and which became scrims, a window to a broken fire escape ladder, and an old dirty couch with duct tape covering holes in the fabric. The kitchen was a counter and a cubic square refrigerator on the floor. There was an old door buzzer and intercom that figured importantly for character action.
Nikki Deshea Smith used bright, uneven lighting and colors that accentuated the dark, dingy nature of slum housing. There was a red glow that ebbed and flowed outside the window suggesting a flashing sign in the distance. But there were also special lighting cases where scrims uncovered acting behind the scenes.
In this play the father creates recorded video messages to his daughter about his life, his failings and his hopes. This reveals exposition for the story and provides a vehicle for the father’s character development. Washington’s team showed camera recordings being made in real time behind a scrim, and also projected the live recordings onto the set. It was challenging, in an interesting way, to both watch the recordings being made on one side of the stage and see the live video on the other. I won’t reveal the insights that came from this solution, but I applaud Washington’s team for doing it.
As was true of the times, music was important to these characters. Whether it was 90’s hip hop or a sound track from Nina Simone that dovetailed with the story coming out of a vintage iPod on a cluttered table, David Lanza made this score seem so natural we didn’t think about them as much as felt their presence. The door buzzer and intercom was used frequently to interrupt or add tension and provide relief from political verbiage. All in all, it was an example of design that’s critical to the story while staying unseen.
Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes reflected the times and socio-economic status for the characters and provided pieces the characters could play with as character business. Kenyatta and Damon wore basic pieces, such as multiple tan shadings of slacks, jacket and hush puppies for Kenyatta, and black jeans or camouflage pants plus under-shirts, a hoodie, and work boots for Damon. Nina wore costumes made of simple pieces, including long red wig, ultra-short dresses and leather jacket topping hip-length leather boots, which she wore when she played out street hooker role, but changed into indoor casual shorts, pants and shirts for times at home. In fact, Nina dressing and changing told us visually where she was coming from and going to and what she was planning.
Sunset Baby, which refers to a longing in Nina’s character and an event in her life, has three characters. Nina is the daughter of famous revolutionaries of the 70’s black power movement which paralleled the American social upheaval of the late 60’s. Because of violence in that movement, Nina’s father, Kenyatta, spent years in prison. Nina’s mother died from addiction and left Nina on the streets, where she bonded with her lover in crime, Damon.
Whitney Coulter played Nina. Nina is flawed in so many ways it’s hard to describe them without telling the story, but her life is filled with terror, apathy, and anger, and she carries bitterness over her mother’s death. Coulter played with these emotions like toys in the attic, touching and exploring and probing how deep she could go with each. She took Nina from loving, tender moments in the arms of Damon through threatened violence against him and her father, added a bit of remorse alternating with resignation about her lifestyle, and then plunged into a deeply moving mourning over her mother and lost childhood. Coulter handled the frequent transitions between these emotions with ease while being adept at playing her subtext. One solo scene had her laying out a spread to entertain her father. She served up Ethiopian Honey Wine, Ritz crackers and cheese. Coulter performed this 5-minute exercise silently, yet through subtle body movements, the way she handled these food items, and her almost imperceptible eye movements, we saw the subtext about her intentions for that visit and how she planned to treat her father.
Damon’s emotional range is not as wide and his character arc is not as long as Nina’s, yet Christopher Piper found depth in Damon’s anguish over a relationship with his estranged son and a dream of lifting out of his criminal lifestyle into economic freedom. Piper played Damon as dominant over Nina, with a bit of male dominance, but also a strong sense of love for her, as there were several tender moments with her. There was a chemistry between Piper and Coulter beyond the characters and that helped Piper build those moments that revealed Damon’s longing for family, while simultaneously expressing his revolutionary side. Damon wasn’t that different from Nina’s father. Piper was challenged with most of the revolutionary and political rhetoric of the play. It was through Damon that we saw the 90’s political struggle juxtaposed against Kenyatta’s 70’s political struggle. In Damon we saw a similar family dynamic to Kenyatta’s experience with his family. Though we knew the consequences of Kenyatta’s choices, Damon did not and Piper committed fully to Damon’s dreams.
William Earl Ray as Kenyatta, Nina’s father and famous activist from the 70’s, desperately needs something from Nina, the missing love letters from his wife. Ray’s challenge was to play the life of a man who chose revolutionary struggle over his family. He gave Kenyatta a mild-mannered soft demeanor, opposite of his early violent days, perhaps tempered by prison. There were glimpses of dynamic emotion in this portrayal, especially in Kenyatta’s deep longing for and violent scenes with Nina. Yet I also saw timidity when on stage. He missed words in important exchanges and seemed too low key for such a dynamic character. But then, while delivering messages to Nina through the camera, he seemed comfortable, more animated. It’s as if he struggled to find the transition from acting through the small lens to projecting his full-body energy when he walked on-stage. Given that this transition happened frequently, it was noticeable. Nevertheless, in moments that mattered, especially in Kenyatta’s quest for the letters and arguments with Nina and Damon, Ray produced strong outbursts and emotional turmoil and disappointment to show us the cost of Kenyatta’s life choices.
Sunset Baby has many levels. On the surface there was a father-daughter conflict and a simultaneous lover conflict. The background for that was Morriseau’s strong message about economic freedom and how people struggle to climb out of the slums. For Director Vickie Washington, the issues included, “joy/sorrow; chaos/serenity; conflict/peace; commitment/denial; (and) truth/lies.” But at its deepest layer, it was a love story. It asked the fundamental questions that hit all of us close to home. Are we lovable? When we find love, can we say it? And can we choose love over everything else? In the end I think the message is that family trumps politics, but you should answer that question for yourself. See this powerful story at Jubilee Theatre.
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through June 28th
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm. Saturday-Sunday Matinee at 3:00 pm. Tickets for Thursday evening and Saturday & Sunday Matinees are $22.00. Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $26.00. For info & tickets, visit www.jubileetheatre.org or call 817-338-4204.