The Black Rep's Sunset Baby Offers a Fearless Take on Fatherhood

Jan 20, 2016 at 1:00 am
Erin Renee Roberts

Aging revolutionary and renowned activist Kenyatta Shakur stares down a camera lens and discourses on the topic of fatherhood. After some preamble, he comes to the nub. "Fatherhood is decades of fear. Lots of fear." And this is before he learns that his daughter makes a living by dealing drugs and posing as a prostitute so her boyfriend can rob the clients.

Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby is no cakewalk. This is an eyes-wide-open look at the responsibilities – and failings – of fathers in the black community. But it's also about hope for the future, forgiveness and the blind spots children have when it comes to their parents. The Black Rep's production eagerly leans in to Kenyatta's fear and dares you to look away – because Sunset Baby ain't gonna blink first. It's an absorbing, thought-provoking play that reaches for the heart and succeeds in making you care about the characters and the issues they confront.

Ron Himes directs and plays Kenyatta, an absentee father who has decided to reconnect with his adult daughter, Nina (Erin Renée Roberts). Their relationship faltered when he was sent to prison for robbing an armored car, and was further damaged when he didn't return home after his sentence was served. Nina blames him for the death of her mother, Ashanti, who slipped into crack addiction in Kenyatta's absence and died a broken woman. Ashanti left behind a cache of never-sent love letters to Kenyatta, which he now wants. But Nina refuses even to consider it. These writings are all she has left of her mother after all of her other mementos were stolen.

Roberts is just about as tall as Himes, but she seems larger because of the way she charges at him in most of their scenes. Her speech is clipped and angry, but as their negotiations break down and then resume, you realize Nina is holding something back, as if giving full voice to her rage would be failing, as it would allow her father to see something inside her. But when she's alone, Nina is a softer, dreamy woman. She listens to her namesake, Nina Simone, and fantasizes about getting out of the city, perhaps with her boyfriend, Damon (Lawd Gabriel), a fiery intellectual who deals drugs. Roberts does exemplary work bringing this complex, intelligent survivor to life.

As for Damon, he too is a father. He has a son with another woman, whom he resents because she makes him out to be a bad guy when he's "only half-bad." Gabriel is charismatic as hell – one moment he's talking about casually killing a naive customer, the next he's lovingly offering to rub Nina's feet after a tough day. You want to believe him when he talks about the bond he has with his son, but when Nina asks him his son's birthdate, all he can do is grab his head and moan.

Himes, as always, portrays his role with nuance and grace. He plays Kenyatta as a guarded, wary man who sticks to small talk and the facts. Prison taught him to meditate and stay cool, which further infuriates Nina.

He's more easygoing when talking to his camera, which he does frequently. Sitting in his living room under a picture of a young Stokely Carmichael, he talks about his past, his regrets and the revolution he's still fighting for. These monologues are projected in real time on a screen above Nina's small, cluttered apartment. Is he a disembodied voice in Nina's head, or is this Kenyatta thinking of his daughter and what she's become? It's a subtle effect, beautifully worked out by Mark Wilson.

When the final confrontation between father and daughter comes, it goes badly. A gun is pulled, and both Kenyatta and Nina drop their masks to show each other who they really are. "Are you always like this? So hard and angry?" Kenyatta asks. Nina tells him that she is, and the great man slumps, sad and defeated. The worst part is, it's a defeat he engineered himself, thinking he was planting a revolution in her.

But maybe he did. Morisseau tags on a coda that offers resolutions for her characters, but not easy answers. Life, fatherhood and revolutions don't always come with happy endings, and forgiveness is never an easy thing to extend to an enemy. If you can see your opponent as a human being, though – flawed, scared and as uncertain as yourself – they're much easier to embrace. And that's revolutionary thinking in action.