goes by with a bunch of confusion and impossible moments that nobody can explain”
Forming the final part of the Gate Theatre’s RESIST! season, Dominique Morisseau’s
Sunset Baby is a fierce ball of familial recriminations, fatherly regret and
flawed characters. Kenyatta Shakur, along with his wife Ashanti X, was a
figurehead of the Black Revolutionary movement and not even fatherhood could
mellow him as he continued the struggle and served time inside for his trouble.
His wife died from her drug addictions and all that is left is Nina, his
daughter, whose feelings of estrangement burn brighter than ever, even when he
begins the process of trying to reconcile with her.
Michelle Asante’s Nina is a bolshy, self-assured presence, adamant in her
unshakeable view of the world that she constantly rails against. With her
boyfriend Damon, they deal drugs and run robbery scams together, and she does
not take kindly to the reappearance of Ben Onwukwe’s Kenyatta in her life,
especially once she figures out what she thinks is his ulterior motive. Ashanti
left a stash of love letters from her husband to Nina in her will and having
had their considerable value assessed, she’s unwilling to let them go without securing
the right price.
Asante burns with a barely suppressed fury as Nina, staring the world straight
in the face and never blinking, but she also has a firm grasp on the young
woman behind the mask, the make-up, the forthright get-up she wears in public. She
really makes us feel for the person that could be, yet seethe with frustration
as she acts out against her father, unwittingly making the same mistakes that
he did. Despite the set-up, Onwukwe emerges as the sympathetic heart of the
piece with his highly compassionate performance, throwing up the question about
whether a man can ever simultaneously be a true revolutionary and a good father
and what, if anything, is an acceptable price to pay.
There’s a sadness at the heart of the whole play, something about the sins of
the father being ever destined to repeat themselves and people being helpless
to prevent this, that made the ending feel a little too neat for me, especially
since Morisseau’s punchy and fresh script impressively never shies away from
the messiness of real life. Thus, it wasn’t quite the ending I was
anticipating. But Charlotte Westenra’s production, punctuated by musical
interludes from Nina’s namesake Nina Simone, is always excellently acted – Chu Omambala
also impressing as Damon – and feels powerfully pertinent.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £4
Booking until 20th October
Labels: Ben Onwukwe, Chu Omambala, Dominique Morisseau, Gate Theatre, Michelle Asante