By Kendra Jones

“What we do with our power is our revolution.”

Sunset Baby, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, is about the generational trauma, love, and fear that is passed from parents to children. We think about how children are handed wounds that they do not know how to heal; and as adults, we continue to push that damage away until it consumes us.

Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby) is desperate to reconnect with his daughter, Nina (Moses Ingram), after Nina’s mother passes away. Nina is now a young woman and has lived with her father’s abandonment. She’s involved in drug deals with her boyfriend, Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson)–but only until they can save up enough money to escape this hustle lifestyle. Nina really doesn’t want to be a pretend-hooker to lure men into Damon so they can rob and sell. It’s immediately clear she doesn’t need Damon; she doesn’t need anyone; she has been conditioned to make it on her own, but she does want something.

She watches the travel channel, dreams of Paris and London, peach wine, little slices of a life she desperately wants. Damon has a young son, and Nina observes Damon’s own fathering and involvement in his son’s life. She’s angry that he, like her own father, isn’t fighting to be in the child’s life. Nina wants out: away from New York, out of this portrait of love and loss and abandonment she has spent her entire life inside.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

Nina blames her father for her mother’s premature death, blames her father for her mother’s depression and drug use.

Nina has letters, worth thousands, from her Black revolutionary mother to her revolutionary father. Kenyatta wants these letters; he wants to find “answers,” but he is reluctant to tell Nina what he wants to know. “You were going to be our revolution,” he tells her upon their first meeting in maybe over two decades, but she wants nothing of the revolution or of him.

I’m intrigued by the methods of communication Morisseau incorporates into her productions: how characters speak to each other, often on stage simultaneously, but are not directly talking to each other. In Sunset Baby, Kenyatta records videos for Nina on a camcorder: musings about fatherhood and the internal conflicts he has faced as an imprisoned father, abandonment, fear, Nina’s mother, their hope for revolution. He says much of what he can’t tell Nina in person, or what Nina does not give him the time to tell. While Kenyatta is soft spoken and tries to remain calm during his conversations with Nina and Damon, we hear his strength and power, resilience, trauma, guilt. “Fear. Decades of fear.”

These minutes when Kenyatta is recording himself, and we see his video projected while he stands in front of us, live, recording, he allows the audience to feel a connection, like he is finally offering a glimpse into his actions, his past, his intentions. Nina goes nearly the whole play without understanding her father because he won’t allow her to, but these tapes will offer her some insight. Will Nina receive the answers she needs in order to cope with trauma? And will Kenyatta receive answers to his own silent ache?

We gain the understanding that sometimes, it may seem easier to allow your family to move on without you–what good is it to allow them to cling on, waiting for you? Nina’s mother deeply loved Kenyatta, but Kenyatta was never able to verbally confirm that love. Still, to Nina, he can’t admit it, but his love for her mother seeps through his recordings, through his need for these letters. He is a silent man, a man of a past that will never leave him.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

Kenyatta brings Nina Polaroids of her mother and of herself as a toddler. Nina wanted to “know where the sun goes when it disappears,” and a drive to San Francisco when she was very young gave them a really good view of the sunset. “How’s an orange sun make the sky purple?” she had asked him.

“Magic, I guess.”

And I want Kenyatta to be genuine, to be showing these old photos to Nina as a way to bond and reminisce, to show her everything good about him that she can’t remember. But we also know he wants those letters, and showing her this sentimental nostalgia may make her feel his guilt.

His voice is a strong, strong presence on the stage, and Nina feels this–she knows herself the meaning of a strong character. She’s been responsible for both herself and her mother for years until her mother’s death.

Each time he sees Nina he romanticizes her strength, her resemblence to her mother. He leaves Nina with her “powerful, unrelenting eyes,” and I feel the love he has for Nina’s mother, the love he deeply does want to earn from his daughter.

From the start though, Nina is reisstant to knowing her father; she feels she knows him enough from his abandonement.

The most memorable parts of the play are the lines, the words Morisseau gives to both Nina and Kenyatta.

Nearly every time Nina replies to Kenyatta, the audience erupts in agreeance; they understand how Nina can hate the way her name sounds when Kenyatta says it. These short lines are powerful, often snarky and honest cuts, and they hold all of the emotion that each character has bottled inside of themselves for years. They’ve pushed their emotions into a closet and locked the door, and they are still resistant to releasing the vulnerability to each other. They can’t acknowledge their desire for love.

Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.

WITH: Russell Hornsby (Kenyatta), Moses Ingram (Nina), and J. Alphonse Nicholson (Damon).

CREATIVE TEAM: Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Emilio Sosa (Costume Design), Alan C. Edwards (Lighting Design), Curtis Craig & Jimmy Keys (Co-Sound Design), Katherine Freer (Projection/Video Design), Ann C. James (Intimacy Coordinator/Cultural Specialist), M. Picciuto (Props Supervisor), J. Jared Janas (Hair & Wig Design), Mars Wolfe (Production Stage Manager).

Sunset Baby is set to run through March 10 at Signature Theater, 480 W 42nd St, Manhattan. Running time is 1 hour 40 minutes. Tickets can be purchased here.