Dominique Morisseau’s new play splices modern black culture and its origins with a painfully taut story of families split asunder, and the result is absolutely spellbinding. The production’s not perfect, by any means, but the raw fury and emotion channeled by the performers makes for compelling viewing. At the Gate Theatre.
The titular Sunset Baby is Nina, the child of a musician and a revolutionary in desperate need of stability and support after one parent became addicted to crack cocaine and the other was sent to jail. Years of having to fend for herself on the New York streets have made her particularly hard, grimly aware of her place in the world and what she can do to get ahead, but all of that is thrown by her father Kenyatta’s return into her life.
Rife with emotional grit, this is not an easy piece to take in. Nina’s abandonment has scarred her in a variety of terrible ways, and her frequent shifts into a collection of garish wigs and a rather horrendous prostitute outfit are a direct indication of the many masks she hides behind. She doesn’t trust her boyfriend Damon or her father, but this is one of those cruel plays where neither deserves to be trusted either. Emotionally, it’s rather painful to see three so fractured characters grate off each other, and the taut script does a fantastic job of creating situations where Morisseau’s well observed American slang makes for harsh conversation.
The plot is notably complex, with fraught relationships at the core but various strands sending us spinning down the history of the black power movement into a modern-day crime caper – and yet Morisseau has weaved them elegantly together, and the story is just as engaging as the characters and dialogue. The only awkward angle is Kenyatta’s attempts to explain himself, which he does (in monologue) to a handheld camera, mixing bizarre beat poetry with a collection of all-too-spelled-out emotions and motives. That, and Ben Onwukwe’s slightly slipping American accent, leave these particular scenes to sink, slowing the otherwise pushy pace.
Michelle Asante, on the other hand, fully captures the difficult Nina in a part that requires a huge amount from her – a spellbinding performance. Chu Omambala manages well as Damon, and their tempestuous relationship works well, but he doesn’t have her grasp of the stage – and their chemistry falters at the more intimate moments, which is a shame.
The other honourable mention here is fully deserved by sound designer Simon Slater, who interprets a script rife with wonderful music (predominantly Nina Simone) that exposes the plot as well as the themes, combining the ‘protest’ music of Kenyatta’s politics with Simone’s often very personal and moving aural narratives – a hugely important part of the script in both cases, and Slater manages to capture both.
Charlotte Westenra has drawn together the piece into a tense and powerful ball, although it won’t appeal to all: this is very much a story of black subculture, a sweary and urban tale of filial confusion, and it did take me a while to take it in for what it was. That being said, though, I eventually found the piece gripping, and it’s an exciting British debut, despite the niggles.