SUNSET BABY (Azuka): A shining lead performance

Dominique Morisseau, author of Sunset Baby, Azuka Theatre’s newest production, is a young, hot playwright with a major New York presence (the Public, Signature, Atlantic, Lincoln Center); she wrote the book for Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud. She scoops up prizes and awards (including a MacArthur “Genius” Grant) like jellybeans.

But the star of Sunset Baby, isn’t the playwright—it is, in fact, a weak script—but Victoria Aaliyah Goins.  She creates a Nina—the play’s central character—with such delicate nuance and such thunderous intensity that you just can’t take your eyes off her. All of which is unfortunate for her two talented co-stars: Steven Wright who plays her father, Kenyatta, and Eric Carter, who plays her boyfriend, Damon. They each have key roles and long monologues, but nobody is paying much attention to them: we’re all watching Nina who struts and sneers and runs through an encyclopedia of character-creating gestures in a tour de force performance. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she’s gorgeous.

The plot revolves around love letters written by her mother, Ashanti X to her father; they are Nina’s only legacy from her dead drug-addicted mother. Back in the day they were leading figures in the Black Power movement. He wants the letters; they were written to him (unexplained detail: how come Ashanti had letters she wrote and sent?). Everyone wants the letters that had been written to a famous political prisoner —publishers, collectors, historians. Nina negotiates only about money, not sentiment.

Damon is a gun-toting drug dealer, and Nina is the Bonnie to his Clyde, luring men to be robbed. They live a mean life on these mean streets, and she watches the Travel channel and dreams of elsewhere. Damon’s central sadness springs from the eight-year-old son he is denied access to. Typically, he is late to his birthday party and forgets to bring a present.

Kenyatta still dreams of revolution. Nina’s cruel description of him as a “broke-ass pseudo-activist” seems pretty accurate. 

Each of the men get to make their case; she—and we—are unpersuaded. Nina Simone—Nina’s namesake— sings softly and sadly in the background.

[Azuka Theatre at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street] November 6-24, 2019; .azukatheatre.org/sunset-baby

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.