Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review of "Sunset Baby"

The exploration of relationships, ever-changing and pulsating, is the focus of the taut, sometimes explosive drama, Sunset Baby, playing at Theaterworks through February 19th.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau introduces three characters.  Nina (Brittany Bellizeare) is a low level street hustler who, along with her male companion/lover and handler, Damon (Carlton Byrd), plies the streets of New York eking out a tenuous existence.  They come across as two soulless individuals, existing day-to-day.  That suddenly changes when Nina’s father Tony (Todd Kenyatta), a former Black Panther type activist, suddenly enters her life after many, many years fighting for social equality and other causes and also serving time in jail.  He wants to locate letters his wife, Nina’s mother, left to her daughter after her death.  They are worth, potentially, many of thousands of dollars because of her prominence in the movement.  That sparks conflict between the young woman and Damon as well as dredges up years of pent-up emotions and rage towards her father before an unexpected resolution involving the threesome is revealed.
Todd Kenyatta and Brittany Bellizeare in "Susnet Baby" at Theaterworks (Photo by Lanny Nagler)  

Ms. Morrisseau’s drama presents a slice of realism.  The dialogue is strong and feels authentic.  However, the back-story of each character is sketchy and perplexingly incomplete, which gives the audience pause as to each character’s true motivations.  The real focus of the show, even after the introduction of Nina’s long missing parent, takes time to coalesce.  Themes of family and commitment swirl around the production, but they are uneasily pushed aside towards the end as the trajectory of the play suddenly changes to Nina’s resurrection as a determined, purposeful and independent woman.  

The cast is compelling and show total commitment to their characters. Todd Kenyatta gives Tony a thoughtful and weighty demeanor.  He is reflective, yet determined.  The actor’s hardened gaze and discourse elevate a purposeful demeanor.  Brittany Bellizeare presents Nina as an emotionally battered woman with numerous unresolved issues and aspirations.  She is strong and feisty, not necessarily comfortable in her own skin.  The numerous costume changes she manages throughout the play could act as a metaphor for her desire to constantly try to reinvent herself.  While the actress demonstrates steely grit, a degree of tenderness or vulnerability would have strengthened and humanized her portrayal.
Carlton Byrd imbues Damon with both rage and lovingness.  Street savvy and book smart, he exudes an arrogant self-pride that, in the end, makes him irrelevant and disposable.

Carlton Byrd and Brittany Bellizeare in "Sunset Baby" at Theaterworks (Photo by Lanny Nagler)

Director Reginald L. Douglas brings an edginess to the production.  At times the atmosphere can be tense and confrontational.  The fervor is amplified by shouting and accusations, which works for most of the scenes, but is occasionally relied on too heavily.  Crafting a three-person drama on a small, one set stage can be challenging but, for the most part, Mr. Douglas deftly manages the task.  His insertion of Tony’s plaintive, dimly lit soliloquies, at key junctures of the show, is, at first, baffling and inscrutable until the show’s conclusion.  It is only then we realize the purpose and poignancy of the solemn, matter-of-factly delivered verse.

Sunset Baby, a fitful, but satisfying drama through February 19th.

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