In Sunset Baby, 2012 Playwrights of New York (PONY) Fellowship winner Morisseau entrusts director Charlotte Westenra with a personal, deeply rooted piece. Set against the backdrop of Black activism in the USA, Sunset Baby explores abandonment and the need to be loved. It asks how far we will go for freedom, whether it is possible to build a world and a home at the same time, and what gets lost in the struggle.
In this piece, activist Kenyatta – played by a grounded Ben Onwukwe – has been jailed for participating in Black activism, leaving his wife and daughter behind. Years later, he turns, up asking for the letters inherited by his daughter after her mother’s death. A long buried tension is unearthed, and the emotional turmoil caused by his actions is gradually revealed.
Kenyatta’s daughter Nina is played by Michelle Asante with power, force and a clear underlying pain. She has an intense and heartbreaking relationship with Nina Simone, joyfully played on the character’s ipod during scene changes. Her small moments with the hidden letters kept inside the portrait of Nina Simone in her flat are absolutely compellingly. Asante has a gravitas that justifies every move she makes. She is sincerely one to watch.
Nina’s boyfriend Damon (Chu Omambala) is elusive and blinkered, obsessed with the idea of love but distracted by his own needs. Despite claiming that he wants to give, we see actions speak louder than words when he fails to remember his son’s eighth birthday or respond to the needs of desperately trapped Nina. The tragedy is Nina watching her own story repeated in Damon’s relationship with the son we never see. Omambala is striking to watch on stage and supports this with a strong voice.
The dialogue can sometimes be a little repetitive rhythmically, but the drive of the actors and their clear direction and objectives makes up for any hindrances presented by the text. The actors know their purpose and they truly deliver. On a small stage, in the secluded Gate Theatre, they have a clever set (designed by Francesca Reidy) that doesn’t fuss and makes the most of the space.
The cast collide with impressive impact thanks to the collaboration of passion and good, free direction. It’s made to work in the space and the cast of three commit, fill and inspire – just as Nina Simone’s voice did and does. It’s a beautiful, well crafted piece of theatre.
Sunset Baby is playing at the Gate Theatre until 20 October. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website.