Sunset Baby Review- a strong and compelling play at TimeLine

“Sunset Baby” by Dominique Morisseau, currently playing in it’s Chicago premiere at the TimeLine Theater, 615 W. Wellington, is a raw and riveting play about three characters struggling to cope with life, love and survival against a backdrop of drugs, crime and violence. In this world, it’s not unusual to abandon your children for decades, pull a gun on your lover or your father, lie to and steal from those closest to you. How, then, do you sort out the present, let alone the facts of the past? Ron OJ Parson directs the three characters in a complicated struggle: one woman, her lover and her father dealing with a valuable legacy: a cache of love letters and a background of lovelessness.

AnJi White as Nina

Nina (named for Nina Simone) and Damon are educated and intelligent drug dealers and also run a scam requiring her to dress like a hooker. Her father, Kenyatta, a former famed Black Revolutionary and political prisoner appears and wants to read the letters his newly dead ex-wife, Ashanti X, also a former famous activist, Nina’s mother, wrote to him in prison but never sent; he is far from the only person wanting to get their hands on these valuable documents. He may also genuinely wish to reconnect with his long-estranged daughter. Nina, filled with rage and hate, spends a great deal of the play’s action lambasting Kenyatta for his shortcomings as a father and for the fact that her mother died an impoverished crack addict in the gutter. Indeed, there is a great deal of high-decibel histrionic behavior here, which begins as riveting and ultimately becomes simply wearing, and perhaps that is the point; hustling, deception and loveless relationships can generate nothing beyond themselves, despite the professed desire of the Nina and Damon to get out and start a new life in a new country.

AnJi White as Nina and Kelvin Roston Jr. as Damon

The production, despite its occasionally overwhelming bouts of prolonged harangue, is well done and riveting on the whole. And the acting is excellent, particularly the portrayal of Nina, by AnJi  White- she’s fearless, strong and true to her beliefs- and unafraid to express herself, absolutely self-assured. Kelvin Roston Jr. as Damon comes across clearly as  both a devoted lover and  an equally ardent con artist, who’d love to get his hands on his girlfriend's mothers writings-to sell. He’s almost lost touch with his own young son, and we can see in his relationship with Nina the fruits of the parenting she (hasn’t) had and how low her expectations really are-despite her frustration with Kenyatta, she’s unable to do more with her own life and love than her parents did with theirs.

AnJi White as Nina and Kelvin Roston Jt. as Damon

And Kenyatta? Phillip Edward Van Lear gives a many-layered performance as the exhausted, reprehensible yet all-too-human father.  Even as he’s trying to wrest a written treasure trove and her mother’s legacy from the daughter he has so profoundly failed, he is  still capable of avowing his love for her. He infuriates her by  describing his reaction to fatherhood as “unpreparedness”. He really thinks that is an excuse for life-long betrayal, and is surprised and hurt when his daughter does not agree.

Phillip Edward Van Lear as Kenyatta and AnJi White as Nina

While the lessons of this piece and the palpable hurt of all these characters by the world may seem all too common, when played out before us in these individual lives, they are poignant, strong and as fresh as individual pain always is. The play will run through April 10th and is highly recommended by this reviewer.

AnJi White as Nina

For tickets and information contact www.timelinetheatre.com

Photos courtesy of Lara Goetsch

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