Monday, November 16, 2015

"Sunset Baby" - An Empathetic Look into Lives of Hardened Survivors

Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Nina Photo Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover 
    There’s an abundance of sexual, interpersonal and philosophical tension permeating City Theatre’s latest production, "Sunset Baby," playwright Dominique Morrisseau’s intimate look into the lives of three people struggling with high aspirations and low incomes while living in a East New York City ghetto.
Nina, from the look of her, is still in her twenties and ravishingly beautiful. She supports herself by selling drugs and, with the help of her partner-in-crime (and lover), Damon, robbing those who fall under their sway. Dressed like a hooker in a mini skirt and revealing blouse, Nina’s a hardened African-American Medusa, seductive yet potently dangerous.
Damon, himself, is no run-of-the-mill street thug. Good-looking and physically imposing, he also has a brain that’s acutely able to finely articulate the political, social and economic factors that contribute to his race’s historical misadventures and societal inequities. And this he does with the pace and rhythm of a rapper in his dialogues with Nina, who herself is no slouch when it comes to discussing issues vital to them both as African-Americans.

Joniece Abbott-Pratt & J. Alphonse Nicholson as Nina & Damon Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

Holed up in a depressingly bland studio apartment realistically realized by set designer, Tony Ferrieri, they share thoughts about their people’s past history and current conditions yet look forward to sometime in the future when they can break out into a newer and better life, perhaps in London, perhaps in some  cozy cottage fronted by the proverbial white picket fence and home to lots of children.
Tangible evidence of their plan for escape is a stash of paper bills hidden under the floorboards. More than halfway to their goal, they plan to make their move when the sum gets to $10,000.
Things get a bit messier with the arrival of former political activist, Kenyatta, Nina’s father, who abandoned her and her now famous activist mother, Ashanti X, when the FBI caught hold of his ideology  and started to make things difficult for him. His departure from the family when Nina was five led to her mother’seventual depression and ultimately her death as a crack addict. Or so Nina believes.

Keith Randolph Smith & Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Kenyatta Shakur & Nina Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

    Harboring a built a up rage that’s not been vented through the intervening years, Nina takes umbrage to her father, who seeks reconciliation now that he’s mellowed with age. He’s also interested in a set of letters Ashanti X wrote him while he was in prison that were never sent but entrusted to Nina. Now worth a significant sum to some interested collector, the letters are as much coveted by Kenyatta as they are cherished by his daughter.
As Nina, named after singer/activist, Nina Simone, Joniece Abbott-Pratt maintains a fine balance between projecting an emotionally hard as nails exterior and having enough humanizing qualities to make you care about her. She can show a softer, slightly submissive side to Damon, but tightens up like a clam in her dealings with her father.
As Damon, J. Alphonse Nicholson at first, seems sincere in his relationship to Nina, but eventually shows more mercenary and dominating attitude, something that the strongly independent Nina doesn’t take too lightly.
Keith Randolph Smith’s Kenyatta is a bull-strong man who seems to have maintained much of his physical prowess but shows a lot of vulnerability when it comes to his daughter. Puzzling are his initial scenes behind a video camera whose blown-up, greatly-magnified images are projected onto the stage. Later, they make a lot of sense in the context of the play.
The drama’s ending is somewhat open-ended and vague, leaving to conjecture the fate of the characters. Just what became of two of them is put on hold in the final scene - Nina expectantly trying for a new and better life.
Director Jade King Carroll sets a fast-paced narrative so be prepared for some raw and real street talk as well as a good deal of enlightenment on the plight of a community and a people much of society knows very little about, even though they’ve been part of our social fabric for centuries.
"Sunset Baby" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh's South Side through Dec.13. Phone 412-431-2489 for tickets and scheduling.

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