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Review: ‘Sunset Baby’ challenges issues of race, family, crime in new Trustus production

“In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” -Alice Walker

How pre-destined is your life?  Is the American dream realistic?  Do we all have the same opportunities?  Are you doomed to repeat the mistakes of your parents, to live in the life that someone else already determined for you?  In a gripping, edgy new drama, Trustus Theatre poses challenging questions and uncomfortable topics in the midst of Black History Month.  In Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, the lives of inner-city African-Americans are explored; drug abuse, poverty, fatherlessness, and crime move from complex sociological forces to real-life vehicles inhibiting growth.

The entirety of Sunset Baby takes place in a present-day living room in East New York, but Trustus Theatre has actually placed its audience in the same living room.  Rather than a traditional production set, this intimate event is held in their Side Door Theatre, a smaller venue where the stage is surrounded by just two rows of chairs.  You’re in Brooklyn with the characters, and, just a warning: the air is thick with deep emotion and intensely simmering frustrations.

Sunset Baby’s protagonist, Nina, is played by Trustus Company’s incredibly talented Devin Anderson.  Anderson brings an intricate, endearing development to Nina; in her portrayal, Nina is both a victim and a force of power.  She is both sensual and yet seduced; she is savvy yet frustratingly complacent at times.  Although her male counterparts in Sunset Baby spend most of the 90-minute play complaining that connecting to Nina is some huge mystery or puzzle, she is actually one of the most relatable characters to grace the stage of Trustus Theatre in recent history.

Nina (Devin Anderson) has a crime partnership and romantic relationship with Damon (Raj Karottukunnel).

Nina is the daughter of a dynamic black couple, Ashante and Kenyatta, who were both respected political activists and revolutionaries.  Kenyatta (Larry Davoll) spent most of Nina’s childhood in prison, and we never meet Ashante—she has passed away, presumably from a drug overdose, prior to the start of the play.  Davoll brings a collected, down-to-earth presence to the play; he carries the character of Kenyatta with a sense of pride and respect that transgresses the understated setting.  It is easy to imagine Kenyatta’s legacy as a thinker and activist, but it is far more interesting to watch Davoll gaze at Anderson and speculate how this character must really feel about fatherhood.

We learn that Nina tried to fund a college degree through unconventional means—she is a street hustler who deals drugs and commits armed robberies, and it’s alluded that she may also have prostituted.  Eventually, Ashante’s addiction and dependency led Nina to drop out of college, and in the time since, she has found both family and a street lifestyle in the arms of Damon (Raj Karottukunnel).  Damon keeps Nina somewhat sedated with promises that no one else could ever love her or understand her as deeply as he does, assuring her that they are a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.  They talk dreamily of one day leaving behind their lives in the slums and moving to Europe.

The play begins with the re-entry of Kenyatta into Nina’s life.  Kenyatta wants his daughter to hand over the letters that Ashante had written to him while he was in prison, but Nina refuses to budge.  The letters are all she has left to remember her mother by, and they serve as a poetic reminder of the passion in which she was born.  Nina has already received other offers from academics and different publications who want to obtain the personal letters of a late great revolutionary like Ashante, so she adamantly believes that her father only wants the letters for financial gain.  Anderson and Davoll manage these scenes with a stormy wisdom and shared self-awareness.  There is a thick tension of unrequited issues between them—the glares, the vocal tones, even the short breaths that we hear, all let us know they are both holding back years of frustrations.  But on the surface, the two skirt scenes together as relative strangers, circling around the small living room suspiciously, eyeing each other.

After failing to get the letters from his daughter, Kenyatta slyly appeals to Damon when Nina is not around, and he finds a more sympathetic ear.  In this scene, we watch the depth Karottukunnel brings to his character.  We see that Damon is intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken; he does seem to have some degree of authentic affection and concern for Nina, too, in spite of some of the play’s murky messages about love.  Karottukunnel makes Damon real—not a stereotyped black male, or a stock character, but a real, fleshed out man who is battling many of his own demons in a society in which he is seldom viewed favorably.  Damon hears that the letters may be worth thousands of dollars, and he demands that Nina turn them over.  Sigh.  Damon, Damon, Damon.  We want to like you, but then you do things like this.

There are so many warning signs that create unease from the beginning of the play, and the audience is left with a heavy feeling that perhaps we didn’t see all of the truth behind Nina and Damon’s torrid relationship.  Damon is obnoxiously jealous and possessive, even initially assuming Kenyatta is a possible lover of Nina’s.  There is also the lingering issue of Damon’s son, whom he barely sees, and the child’s mother, Renee, who Damon only mentions in expletives.  He steals thousands of dollars that Nina has saved.  As the play progresses, threats and both verbal and physical aggression occur.  Damon…we want to like you.  We want to feel sorry for you, too.  But you’re threatening the safety and well-being of our protagonist here.

Kenyatta Shakur (Larry Davoll) is a political revolutionary trying to reconnect with his hardened daughter, Nina (Devin Anderson).

Sunset Baby, though, has no easy moments and no clear-cut rainbows waiting for us at the end of the play, and for that matter, the “good guy” and “bad guy” dichotomy hardly applies to this script.  Particularly under the direction of Bakari Lebby and within the intimate side stage theatre at Trustus, Sunset Baby is a play that thrusts the audience into the disordered lives of its main characters.  Kenyatta, Nina, and Damon all seem trapped—by poverty, by a lack of family and supports, by the racial tensions of the society in which they live, by their own histories, by the mistakes their loved ones have made, by their own unfulfilled desires.

We may have not all held a gun at someone and demanded they give us all the money they have, but that doesn’t mean that Nina is not a relatable character.  Yes, she’s a woman who makes her living on the streets.  She’s hardened by loss and she has trouble saying the word “love.”  But there is likely a part of Nina in anyone who watches this play.

Like many of us, Nina is a woman who mourns the loss of her mother.  She is still deeply hurt by the absence of her father.  She wants very badly to convince herself that her boyfriend is not a bad man.  She describes Damon as a “survivor,” which is a very telling moment for her.  There, we see that Nina values Damon’s resourcefulness, his strength, his will to go on.

The most touching part of the play, though, is Nina’s growing realization that she, too, is a survivor.  She first fixed her identity through the lens of being Ashante’s daughter, then as Damon’s girlfriend/partner in crime, both times only in the ways that society allowed her to exist.  Nina watches the Travel Channel and talks about wanting to see Europe and experience the beauty of the world, far beyond the slums she navigates so skillfully.  Whether or not she will ever break away from the chains life has handed her, though, is the question that lingers.

Sunset Baby has just five more performances left: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 1; 8 p.m. Friday, March 2; 2 p.m. Saturday, March 3, and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3.  Tickets are $25 and will place you in an up close and personal proximity to the stage and the characters of this moving, impactful drama.  For more information, click here.

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