Damon is a drug dealer and a robber, but a scholar too. He reads academic treatises in his spare time, it turns out. It’s enough to surprise former revolutionary Kenyatta Shakur. First they trade street talk. Then they trade ideas. Shakur has been out of the fight for decades. “We need soldiers like you out here now,” Damon says.
Then they start talking about Nina. Kenyatta’s estranged daughter. Damon’s girlfriend. Nina has letters that Kenyatta and her mother Ashanti wrote to each other while Kenyatta was in prison, letters that a lot of academics want to get their hands on now that Ashanti has passed. Letters that Kenyatta wants even more than they do. Problem is, he needs to somehow reconnect with Nina to get them, and there’s a lot of hurt in the past to get through first.
“She and I have a lot of history,” Kenyatta says.
“History is bullshit,” Damon replies. “Only thing matters is the present. The past don’t do a damn thing but keep you chokin’ on bad memories.”
Is Damon right? That question is one of many at the loudly beating heart of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, playing at Collective Consciousness Theatre in Erector Square from Feb. 22 to Mar. 11. Directed by Jenny Nelson, the play centers on Kenyatta Shakur (Terrence Riggins), a former black revolutionary who still believes in the cause but has retired from the struggle itself. He has come to East New York to find Nina (Tamika Pettway), his daughter — from whom he was estranged many years ago — because Nina has come into possession of the letters Kenyatta and mother Ashanti wrote back and forth to each other at the height of their activities as revolutionaries and their passion as lovers. They’re a part of American history now.
But Ashanti’s and Nina’s personal histories have been less kind. Ashanti died in the depths of drug addiction. It turns out Nina helps push the stuff herself now with help from boyfriend Damon (Kingston Farady). Nina and Damon have a plan to get out of East New York and head off somewhere else, maybe London, maybe Rio de Janeiro. They’ve been saving up money to take off. Parting with the letters for the right amount of cash just might be what they need to realize their dreams of escape. Publishers have started sniffing around. Only problem is, Kenyatta wants the letters, too, and Nina isn’t sure she wants Kenyatta to have them. It’s not just the money involved. It’s that her sense of betrayal runs deep, and she’s as fiercely intelligent as her parents. Kenyatta will need to do more than convince her. He needs to make amends, but he doesn’t know how.
The ingenuity of Morisseau’s play is that its circumstances make every political discussion personal, and every personal discussion political. The play thus functions quite effectively on two levels. At the personal level, it’s a heart-wrenching (and in some ways redemptive, though not in the way that you’d think) family drama, about a father trying to reconnect with an angry daughter. At the political level, it’s a scorching take on the legacy of the 1960s, and particularly the militant aspects of the black liberation movement. How much did it fulfill its promise? And at what cost?
Sunset Baby is a high-stakes play, demanding total emotional commitment from the actors from the play’s first words (“Fatherhood. Complex. Complicated.”) Riggins, Pettway, and Farady do the play proud. Riggins easily taps into Kenyatta’s strength and his brokenness. He’s a man who can lead others through the power of his words for political causes but can’t seem to say what he needs to his daughter. Farady’s Damon bristles with barely contained energy and thwarted ambition — and you see what Nina sees in him, the intelligence, the charm, the sincerity, even with the “Bonnie and Clyde thing” the two have going on. But the play really rests on Pettway’s shoulders, from the moment we see her putting on makeup in her apartment to her unfettered passion at the play’s end. Nina thinks and feels so much, and wrestles with it as her past and present collapse into one another. There is so much she needs to say, and so much she needs to keep secret. Pettway lets us see it all, delivers it all.
The actors’ work lays bare the pointed questions in the play. Perhaps now even more than in 2012, when the play was first performed, Sunset Baby forces us to look hard at the real personal wreckage behind the simple textbook narrative of the 1960s — the lives lost and ruined in one generation and the scars borne on the faces of the next, especially as they see that the problems faced a generation ago sometimes just seem to go deeper and deeper. What’s the next step? Do we contend with the ghosts of the past, or do we leave them there and chart a new course? How do we make things better now? Sunset Baby is far too smart to offer quick answers, and far too emotionally gripping not to leave us wanting them.
Sunset Baby plays at Collective Consciousness Theatre, Erector Square, 315 Peck St., from Feb. 22 to Mar. 11. Click here for tickets and more information.