Playwright Dominique Morriseau’s “Sunset Baby” achieved high visibility with productions in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Now the extended one-act about a former black revolutionary trying to piece together his troubled family’s legacy comes to Kansas City, courtesy of the KC Melting Pot Theatre.
On opening night the company unveiled a a spare production of this intriguing play with talented actors who unfortunately had yet to settle comfortably into the characters or refine their timing.
The play unfolds in a New York apartment with three characters — Nina, an angry young woman who makes a living posing as a hooker so her boyfriend can rob the would-be johns; Damon, her lover, a hustler who is both street-smart and book-smart and entertains an inflated view of his own abilities; and Kenyatta, Nina’s father, a one-time revolutionary who in his younger days fought for social justice in Oakland, California, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party.
Kenyatta has two goals: To reconnect with his daughter in a meaningful way and to recover letters written to him by his late wife while he was in prison. This is an absent father/resentful daughter relationship on steroids and the feelings, both tender and incendiary, run deep. Nina, named by her parents after the singer/activist Nina Simone, believes the letters might be worth money to historians and biographers and resists handing them over. The handwritten love letters also happen to be her mother’s only physical legacy.
In addition to scenes in the apartment, Morriseau cuts away at times to Kenyatta, who is sharing his thoughts and feelings to a video camera as he records a lasting legacy of his own for Nina. These sharply written monologues serve a dual purpose: to provide a context for Nina to understand her childhood and her parents’ lives before she was born; and for Kenyatta to explain — or justify — his choices to himself.
Morriseau’s tightly written play demonstrates a gift for dialogue that strikes a delicate balance between R-rated street language and philosophical reflections while showing us the feverish workings of complex intellects. But at times “Sunset Baby” feels less like an organic drama than a construct. Morrisseau seems to push her characters toward pre-determined resolutions.
Director Nicole Hodges Persley assembled the most crucial ingredients by casting three impressive actors. Melting Pot founder Harvey Williams plays Kenyatta with a subtle, effective touch. (His handling of the monologues is virtually flawless.) Aishah Ogbeh captures Nina’s anger and emotional intensity while finding opportunities to reflect her vulnerable side. Lewis Morrow’s performance as Damon is a memorable portrait of a dreamer who sees street crime as a stepping stone to life as a wealthy expatriate.
On opening night, the show felt under-rehearsed (actors sometimes out of sync, cues picked up too slowly, sluggish pacing). Even so, the cast illuminated the core of Morriseau’s script: Fundamental changes after the revolutionary ferment of the 1960s were few and illusory.
And the movement took its toll in more ways than one. At one point Kenyatta shares a harsh reality with Nina — that love and family were liabilities to revolutionaries.
Despite the backdrop of street crime and the politics of resistance, ultimately this is a sentimental family drama which, despite its bitter conflicts, ends on a hopeful note. Kenyatta finds peace and a bit of grace while Nina plunges into a new life she may or may not be prepared for. Whether the play earns its optimism is open to debate.
Kudos to Melting Pot, a company with limited resources, for bringing this thought-provoking play to Kansas City.
“Sunset Baby” runs through Dec. 16 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Go to www.kcmeltingpot.com or call 816-226-8087.