Mary-Francis Miller's Standout Performance Gives 'Sunset Baby' an Enduring Glow at Dobama Theatre

Mary-Francis Miller's Standout Performance Gives 'Sunset Baby' anEnduring Glow at Dobama Theatre
Photo by Steve Wagner Photography

Sunset Baby

Through Sept. 30, At Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights


It's hard enough to be the child of a celebrity who is praised for their talents in any of the various arts. But when both your parents were black civil rights activists, spending all their time working for change while fighting enormous opposing pressures, that has to distort your life.

Such is the situation facing grown up Nina in Sunset Baby, a wonderfully multi-layered play written by Dominique Morisseau. And the three-person cast under the direction of Justin Emeka has some stellar moments in the course of this almost two-hour intermission-less play. Unfortunately, there are some elements that don't quite click, both in the script and in this production, that eventually soften the impact the work should produce.

One of those wrinkles is visible immediately, in the scenic design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski. This immensely talented designer has produced a supposedly "distressed" apartment in Brooklyn that looks not particularly distressed at all. Indeed, it looks virtually empty, in move-in condition, save for a slightly cluttered small bookcase against the rear wall.

While it may be unusual to mention the set of a play this early in a review, in this case it is important since it's where virtually all the action takes place. This is the home of Nina, the daughter of Kenyatta and Ashanti X who were leading revolutionaries in the black power movement decades earlier. That is, to say the least, an interesting family background, full of embedded contradictions, that could be expressed in some way in the appearance of her apartment.

In any case, she's sharing her oddly pristine space with her lover Damon, a young hustler who runs scams with Nina who poses as a prostitute, in addition to his other nefarious activities. In short order, Nina is visited by her estranged father Kenyatta, who is looking for the letters written to him by Ashanti X while he was in prison after staging a botched "revolutionary" robbery of an armored vehicle.

As written, these are three engrossing characters since playwright Morisseau doesn't take the easy way out with any of them. Nina is a closed-off "bitch," in Damon's term, but she has a softer side that dreams of moving to Europe, having kids, and doing normal family things. Her years of growing up under the glare of her parents' battles for social justice—and being separated from her dad who was in jail during her formative years—have annealed her, hardened her, and she refuses to let down her guard.

Damon is equally complex, far from just another street thug. He is well read and expounds on philosophical theories at times. But he also brandishes the hair-trigger temper of a man who has learned to protect his turf. This is first seen when he's caressing Nina on the couch and his ire suddenly emerges when he asks about the visit from Kenyatta. He is disturbed that the encounter has rattled Nina, since he wants to be the only person who has that power over her.

The one person in this trio without any power is Kenyatta, who tries to connect with the daughter he was distant from when she was younger. His anguish over that, and her deep sadness, is scored by the music of Nina Simone—the person Nina was named after. Snatches of her songs are played at different times during the show. And it is no insult to the creators to say that Simone's recorded words, both audio and video, compete to be the most powerful moments.

But nothing surpasses Mary-Francis Miller as Nina; she is simply amazing, capturing both the edgy and cushy sides of this woman's persona. Later in the play, her intense confrontation with Kenyatta, when she sends him packing, is startling in its visceral strength. She is complemented well by Ananias J. Dixon, whose Damon is an intentionally off-putting mixture of good sense, barely restrained sexuality, and rash impulsiveness. They make a fascinating pair.

In the role of Kenyatta, the superb actor Greg White seems slightly off-center during the entire play. Although this character is on the downside of his life, White's interpretation feels a bit too deflated. There should be a sense of Kenyatta's former strength, shown by the residue of pride in his voice and the speaking tempo of a man who could once move people with his words.

It isn't entirely White's fault, since he's also saddled with a few un-actable monologues when Kenyatta is recording his soppy feelings ("I wanted to give it all to you.") and faux-deep musings ("Too much apathy. Too much ignorance. Not enough selflessness.") into a video recorder for his daughter. These interludes are the weakest part of Morisseau's script, becoming preachy and obvious pauses in a piece that avoids those traps everywhere else.

There are projections designed by the master of such things, T. Paul Lowry, and some are effective—particularly those involving Nina Simone and activist Stokely Carmichael. But other video projections that are thrown against the back wall of the set just become visual static and don't enhance the experience.

Sunset Baby is worth a trip to Lee Road, for Mary Francis Miller's stunning performance, for a few clips of Nina Simone's singing, and for a story that touches on the personal sacrifices that people make when they try to move the world in a different direction.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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