Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Her father in prison and her mother on crack, Nina had limited options, in spite of her obvious intelligence and strong will. She and her boyfriend Damon run the dangerous entrapment hustle, robbing their quarries at gunpoint. They are saving money to escape their life in the slums of East New York, imagining a better life in Europe; today Nina is set on London.
Kenyatta's sudden appearance at Nina's door is not driven by a wish to forge long neglected parental bonds. He wants a batch of letters Ashanti wrote to him during his time in prison, but never mailed. Kenyatta inherited the letters, which she claims are highly sought by archivists, historians, and others willing to pay a steep price for these artifacts of a vanished Black Power era. Nina is cagy as to whether or not she still has the letters, and angered that Kenyatta is unable or unwilling to tell her why he so badly wants them now. When she refuses, Kenyatta appeals to Damon to persuade Nina to turn the letters over to him, implying he is willing to pay.
The remainder of the play, which logs about 100 minutes without intermission, depict duels of will between Nina and Kenyatta and between Nina and Damon. These include commentary on barriers to the advancement of young black men and women, the inequitable burden of student debt, the merits and dangers of being sentimental about one's past, and the transformation of madness into power, with Kenyatta using the singer Nina Simone, for whom he named his daughter, as an example, and the heartbreak felt by one generation when the changes they fought and bled for fail to make life better for their children, and possibly made things even worse. Hence Nina's cruel accusation to her father that shea hustler with no visible hint of kindnessis the legacy of the revolution for which he gave his life and wreaked havoc on hers.
Between scenes, Kenyatta records brief monologues on video discs, struggling to articulate feelings about fatherhood, love, change and revolutionfeelings that are so stunted he utters them void of emotion or meaning. His purpose in attempting to reveal his inner self in this way is made known at the play's end, though the impact it makes is left unclear.
Sunset Baby has a lot to say, and says it with intense passion. The play however, is weighed down by a plot that is peppered with unanswered questions. Why did Ashanti never mail the letter to Kenyatta? Why is Nina is so unwilling to part with themaren't photocopies an option? Are her claims that the letters could yield a high price true? How long was the interval between Kenyatta's release from prison and his appearance at Nina's door? Why did Ashantiwho, Nina states, continued to hold her father up as a heronever bring her to visit her father in prison? There are many loose wires carrying high voltage charges in this play, but if the wires were joined in a more complete circuit, the ignition could be much greater than it is.
Nonetheless, there are sparks: sparks in the playwright's language, a skilled marriage of mean streets with the poetry of dreams; sparks in Lou Bellamy's seamless direction that builds scene upon scene, plowing forward through the uncertainties over what is truth, what is real, and what lies ahead; and sparks in three extraordinary performances on stage at the Penumbra.
Foremost is Jasmine Hughes as Nina, drenched in bitterness and anger, but able to play the roles necessary to endure and to plot for an escape route from the horrible life she has lived. In her solitary moments, a more reflective side of Nina shows, and Hughes makes this just slight enough to convince us that never is Nina lowering her guard. Hughes has established a strong presence on Twin Cities stages over the past year, with impressive turns in Pussy Valley, An Octoroon, and Bright Half Life. Her searing portrait of Nina places her in the upper echelon of Twin Cities actors.
Holding his own with Ms. Hughes is Ronnel Taylor as Damon. Taylor is new to the Twin Cities, having acted on many stages in Chicago and Madison. He presents Damon as a hyperactive dreamer, able to use force when necessary to achieve his aims, but charged with restless energy that, paradoxically, is in search of a tranquil life. He may be being duped by Nina, but no more than he is duping himself with his plots for getting off the street. As Kenyatta, James Craven, a stalwart veteran of Penumbra and other stages, provides the brooding presence of a man whose emotional life has been quarantined for so long, he is not only unable to release it, but unable to touch it himself.
The design work for Sunset Baby is outstanding. Nina's run-down apartment captures the essence of "bleak," complete with rust stains on the joints in the exposed plumbing and spackle spread over a long crack in the wall. The hooker costume Nina puts on when she goes out with Damon to run their hustle is the epitome of sexuality packaged as a commodity. Lights, sound, and musical elements all coalesce in a brilliantly crafted production.
The ending of Sunset Baby brings a surprise, and leaves us with unanswered questions. Even with gaps in our understanding of what transpired before, one wonders what lies ahead for Nina, Damon, and Kenyatta. What possible futures could there be for these three who have each been following a dream, dreams that led them to commit crimes, betray trusts, and debase themselves? What kind of revolution can make things right for them?
Sunset Baby continues through May 8, 2016, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $40.00; Seniors (age 62 and up) - $35.00; Students with valid ID - $15.00 (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.
Writer: Dominique Morisseau; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Cole Bylander; Lighting and Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: Jordan Daoust; Props Master: Amy J. Reddy; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Abrigo; Music Advisor: Quentin Talley
Cast: James W. Craven (Kenyatta), Jasmine Hughes (Nina), Ronnel Taylor (Damon).