BWW Review: SUNSET BABY at TheaterWorks
SUNSET BABY centers around a young woman, Nina (Brittany Bellizeare), her recently freed-from-jail activist father Kenyatta (Tony Todd) and her drug dealer/hustler boyfriend Damon (Carlton Byrd). These three characters share a glimpse into three difficult, yet complex lives and the things one is willing to do to take a stand, make a change, or simply survive. Through a series of scenes, all taking place in Nina's Brooklyn apartment, audiences witness confrontation, betrayal, and the lonely desperation of a woman just looking to be loved.
The play begins with a soliloquy of sorts, by Kenyatta, the activist and leader in the black liberation movement - one part poem another part plea. We then meet Nina, who is preparing for an evening of work with her boyfriend, Damon who deals drugs and pretends she is a prostitute so they can rob unsuspecting customers. She listens to Nina Simone (her namesake) as she gets ready, and this iconic music forms the soundtrack for most of the evening. Her father, Kenyatta, arrives at Nina's door looking for some letters that her late mother, Ashanti X, a fellow activist and addict, wrote to Kenyatta while he was in jail, but never mailed. These letters hold more than just sentimental memories for these two characters. For Nina, they represent the one and only thing she has left of her mother, something she is willing to protect at all costs. To Kenyatta, they represent closure, messages never delivered, and answers to questions that have plagued him for years. They also are the only tangible connection between him and the young woman he hasn't seen in years. When Damon enters the next scene we begin to understand Nina's world a bit more, witnessing the passionate, desperate dance these two live every day. Through the rest of the evening, these three characters reveal their histories, their dreams, their joys and their fears.
In SUNSET BABY, Dominique Morisseau's script is fast paced, real and raw. Through each conversation and confrontation, she peels back layers of each character to reveal the scared yet determined people that lie beneath. As Kenyatta, Tony Todd conveys a mix of life experience and a passion that formed much of his early life (and landed him in jail.) His speeches to the audience are delivered with force and grace and his scenes with Ms. Bellizeare are both electric and tender. As Damon, Carlton Byrd gives a strong performance as a young man who has been trapped by his circumstance, determined to break free, but bound to repeat the failures of the past. But it is Brittany Bellizeare who shines most as Nina. Her broken spirit, hidden behind a streetwise and tough exterior reveals itself gradually throughout the play leading to a resolute and more settled woman in the final scenes of the play.
Reginald L. Douglas' direction is strong, coaxing out the raw emotion of the script while not losing the nuances of these very real people. The apartment set (design by Alexander Woodward) works well on the small TheaterWorks stage. Karen Perry's costumes stand out, especially the colorful and exotic outfits that Nina dons for her evenings as a would-be prostitute. The sound design (Julian Evans) and lighting (Rob Denton) created a realistic atmosphere.
Overall, SUNSET BABY is a powerful evening of theater. The performances are strong, the story is relevant and real, and the script, though sometimes blunt and difficult, is poetically beautiful. The play touches on a number of different themes, but the experience is probably best summed up in the playwright's own words - "..it is about untreated wounds between generations, and the hope for healing. It is about love."
SUNSET BABY runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through February 19. TheaterWorks is located at 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838 or go to theaterworkshartford.com.
Photo credits: Lanny Nagler