James W. Craven and Jasmine Hughes in Sunset Baby. Photo by Allen Weeks
Right after seeing the Sunday Matinee of Sunset Baby there was one thing I knew I needed to do, take a walk while listening to Nina Simone. I needed to do this for three reasons, firstly it was a beautiful day and I was not working, secondly Sunset Baby had reminded me how much I love listening to Nina Simone, and lastly I needed some time to digest what I had just seen.
For a play with just three characters Sunset Baby packs a punch. In each one of them there seems to be an entire world, and how those worlds collide makes for a wonderful story. Firstly there is Nina, named for Nina Simone. Played by Jasmine Hughes, she is the child of activists during the Civil Rights movement who is coming to terms with her mothers recent death, currently sells drugs and robs people to make money in hope of escaping her life. Her father Kanyatta, played by James W Craven, is searching from letters from his Nina's mother and himself is coming to terms with his relationship with Nina and what he was fighting for his whole life. And lastly, Nina's boyfriend Damon, played by Ronnel Taylor, who is book smart and street smart. A criminal in order to provide for himself and his son, and to, like Nina escape the slums of New York City.
James W. Craven and Ronnel Taylor in Sunset Baby. Photo by Allen Weeks.
This play by Dominique Morisseau (who also authored Detroit '67, which played at the Penumbra last season) leaves so many different issues to unpack. There is the issue of what is left of a movement a generation later. There is the issue of addiction, disease, and brilliance of those who so often suffer it. There is the issue of what it means to be a parent. And there is the common theme that we all can relate to, of wanting something different than the life that we have.
All of these issues are given their time in this 90 minute play that is performed without an intermission. Not all of them are necessarily resolved, but that would not be true to real life. And this play is that, true to real life. The real life of people that are explicitly criminals and whose story is told in a way that I have never seen done before. The accomplishment of which I believe deserves applause in and of itself. That is without talking about the acting which I found near perfect. Especially by Jasmine Hughes who played Nina, the character that is center of the action. Hughes' portrayal makes you ache and pulls you into the story and into Nina's life wonderfully.
Sunset Baby runs at the Penumbra Theater until May 8. If you want too see theater that is different from most out there, leave you thinking about it long after the bows end and wanting to listen to Nina Simone then I highly recommend it.