Fatherhood is “complicated,” Kenyatta Shakur (Keith Randolph Smith) confesses to a video camera at the beginning of Dominique Morisseau’s new play Sunset Baby. We don’t know it at the moment, but his confession isn’t for us; it’s for his daughter, Nina (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), from whom he has been estranged most of her life. He’s racked with guilt over his failure as a father, and has come seeking reconnection, of sorts: he’s heard that Nina’s recently deceased mother left her a clutch of unmailed love letters she had written to him while he was serving time as a political prisoner in the 1980s, and he wants quite desperately to see them. Nina, for her part, has long past closed the door on Kenyatta: she has never forgiven him for choosing the black liberation movement over his family, for abandoning her mother to poverty and crack addiction and her to a scramble for survival. By rights, Nina ought have been a rising leader of the black community; instead, she dresses like a hooker and runs a drug and theft hustle with her boyfriend Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a man who, according to Morisseau’s character description, “in another life, could be a helluva scholar…”
The play is an examination of lost potential on many levels. Kenyatta claims that he left his family in order to protect them: when the movement was infiltrated by informers, he tells Nina, “love became a liability.” Yet tragically, the revolution for which he sacrificed them foundered on the shoals of the eighties crack epidemic. Kenyatta tells Nina that he named her after vocalist Nina Simone, “because she was our rebel music. You were going to be our revolution,” but Nina and Damon represent a generation of potential laid waste by drugs, poverty, and lack of opportunity. Damon tries to justify their criminal behavior as a form of social activism – he claims that he and Nina represent “social dynamite” and that their off-the-books economic activity represents a rebellion against the “totem pole social structure that keeps the social junk at the bottom” – but in reality he isn’t a whole lot different than the “social junk” he derides. He can be abusive and controlling toward Nina, and he’s got a young son of his own that he’s already half abandoned, repeating the cycle of absentee fatherhood, of “life being run by child support,” for another generation.
Morisseau’s writing crackles with energy, and under Jade King Carroll’s direction the fine cast dives into it with brio. Smith centers the play as a man who, having been forced to put his emotional life aside, has lost his capacity to be vulnerable and let his daughter in. As Nina, Abbott-Pratt gives glimpses of the vulnerable child aching under her character’s tough exterior; we’re privy to the effort it takes Nina to keep her lifetime of walls up and guarded. And J. Alphonse Nicholson is superb as the canny, street-wise, but at times unexpectedly desperate and needy Damon.
I saw Sunset Baby and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on consecutive nights this past weekend, and it’s hard to resist, in closing, drawing some connections between these two plays. Both orbit around the love and suffering tied up in objects bequeathed from one generation to the next; both trace the legacy of systemic, structural disenfranchisement on African-American families; both are interested in how trauma, and particularly the trauma of an absented father, has intergenerational effects; and both provide insight into the role the justice system and imprisonment have played in perpetuating the cycle of absent fathers in the black community and preventing generations of African-Americans from realizing their full potential. Wilson did not live to extend his portrayal of African-American experience into the twenty-first century; with this play, Dominique Morisseau appears to have picked up the baton and carried it forward to our current decade.