“Life 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.