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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Letters at Core of Play About Tangled Ties of Life and Love

I attended the opening night  performance of “Sunset Baby”, a play by Dominique Morriseau, on Saturday, April 6th at the Anacostia Playhouse.  Initially I  had a bit of confusion because the program sheet I was given indicated that the work was “based on the play by Dominique Morriseau.” So, my reasoning sense considered that I could expect further confusion.

The play presents a three character story about a brief period in the lives of Nina, her boyfriend Damon and her estranged father Kenyatta. As the story begins to unfold we learn that Nina and Damon have been a couple for an undisclosed period of time, but it seems to be substantial. Nina reveals that her mother was a junkie, but that she had sufficient clarity of mind that resulted in her writing some provocative, revelatory, emotionally stirring and incisive letters. It is these letters that stir the newly established but explosive connection to her father.

The story setup reveals that Damon is a scheming hustler with a young son from a previous relationship that he makes an effort to to support and be a meaningful part of his life, marred by an abrasive reaction from the boy’s mother. He and Nina have been together for a substantial time and have established a goal to pursue their fantasy of world travel and adventure. Their way of achieving this fantasy is to have Nina present herself as a prostitute, with Damon posing as her pimp. Once they engage the tricks they rob them with the violence of gun power. The cash goes into their “fantasy pot.”

Things take a turn for the absurd when Kenyatta unexpectedly appears at the apartment and confronts Damon and quizzes him about his knowledge of the letters.   Damon doesn’t offer to assist Kenyatta in convincing Nina to share the letters with him because he’s not hip to the significance and value they have.

Nina is not sure of Damon’s connection to Kenyatta regarding the letters and their value and significance. When her father unexpectedly pays her a visit, he tries to convince her to share the letters with him. This results in a heated, angry and accusatory exchange with Nina defending her mother and excusing her addiction by pointing to how inspirational she was in recognizing the value of spiritual connections and excoriating Kenyatta for his absence in her young life.

Kenyatta responds by recalling how close they were when she was a young girl. He tells her why her mother nicknamed her, “Sunset Baby.” As a young girl she expressed her love of sunsets so her mother gave her the nickname. Kenyatta tells her how he took her to Los Angeles so she could experience the setting of the sun in the western part of the United States.

He also tells her that she was named after the iconic singer and social/political activist Nina Simone. The explanation doesn’t change her opinion of him as a deadbeat Dad nor as an inattentive husband.

She excoriates him for what she sees as his phony activism as a social and political revolutionary who ends up incarcerated and that he only wants the letters to cash them in for their monetary value. She offers to give him the letters for an acceptable amount. He agrees to her offer and when he returns she asks him for his money. He gives her $5,000, but she scoffs at him and insists that he must have more than that to offer. So, she digs into his bag and finds another large wad of money of an undisclosed amount which she claims.

The story further unfolds and exposes the emotional turmoil that this compelling portrait of disdain, misunderstanding, political and social indoctrination and abandonment can have on peoples’ lives. Kenyatta gets the letters and joyfully engages himself in having them. Nina plans to move forward on her worldly travels deeply inspired by her mother’s letters and recordings reflecting her outlook on life, love, the state of the world and other observations about human existence. This seems to signal that Nina and Damon are no longer together and have gone their separate ways.

The cast, Tierra Burke as Nina, Shawn Sebastian Naar as Damon and DeJeanette Horne as Kenyyatta are all well cast in their roles. Their characterizations are believable and they each convey a sense of reality in their portrayals in their interactions with each other.  I’m sure the capable direction of Deirdra La Wan Starnes was a definite part of those results.

The run of “Sunset Baby” is through April 28th and tickets are $50.00.

Michael Sainte-Andress is the Arts & Culture Critic for the Anacostia Coordinating Council

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