Nina’s vision for her future doesn’t sound much different from many versions of the American Dream. She wants a home. Security. Kids who will listen as she reads to them. A garden.
But how Nina inches violently toward that dream is anything but typical in Dominique Morriseau’s searing Sunset Baby.
Produced Off-Broadway a year ago, Morriseau’s play about three people dealing with a black revolutionary’s political and personal legacy is now being done in Fort Lauderdale. The not-for-profit company Primal Forces, which performs at Andrews Living Arts Studio, is choosing work that explores the contemporary reverberations of the counterculture movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Sunset Baby, like the company’s earlier production of David Mamet’s The Anarchist, certainly does that. It also provides a showcase for the talents of three of South Florida’s most riveting actors: Ethan Henry, Makeba Pace and Carbonell Award winner John Archie.
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Archie plays Kenyatta Shakur, a well-known former activist who did time for knocking over an armored truck back in the day. His daughter Nina (Pace), named for singer Nina Simone, earns her bread by dealing drugs and robbing her customers in Brooklyn. Her lover Damon (Henry), violent and angry and tightly wound, is her partner in crime.
Kenyatta wants Nina to understand the politics of the revolution from his perspective, so he makes a series of reflective videos to give to her. And he wants something else: He has learned that Nina’s late mom, a fellow activist who called herself Ashanti X, has willed her a collection of letters she wrote to Kenyatta while he was in prison but never sent. He says he simply wants to read the letters, which are now worth thousands because of the duo’s notoriety. But as with so much in Sunset Baby, truth is elusive.
Those “videos,” delivered as sporadic short monologues by Archie, are actually the least engaing aspect of the play, though they serve to underscore how the cause was — and is — the driving force in Kenyatta’s life, far more important to him than the broken human beings he left in his wake.
Much more fascinating is the way Morriseau examines the falling dominoes of decisions. Kenyatta disappeared when Nina was 5, leaving her to be raised by a woman whose battle with addiction eventually killed her. Damon, whose son D.J. is about to turn 8, is trying to be a more present father, but his ex keeps thwarting him. Nina and Damon see their criminal lifestyle, aimed at amassing a nest egg rather than changing society, as a logical way to make their fantasy life real. But the trust they violate repeatedly in their “work” doesn’t make for a rock-solid relationship.
Director Keith Garsson and the actors fiercely explore a 90-minute piece dense with ideas and roiling with conflict.
Pace allows Nina only the tiniest flashes of vulnerability, otherwise playing a tough, focused, cynical woman who uses her sexual allure as one more way to make her escapist dream come true. Archie makes Kenyatta a philosopher still missing a vulnerable heart but even now quite adept at the hustle. And Henry? He’s mesmerizing.
Though he appears far less frequently on South Florida stages than an actor of his talents should, Henry has “it” — meaning craft, talent and a magnetism that draws the audience into the wildly different characters he plays. His Damon is a huge personality, crafty and threatening but completely believable. He, Pace and Archie form a formidable trio, and he’ll be back in April’s Primal Forces production of Lanford Wilson’s Redwood Curtain. Which is very good news indeed.
If you go
What: ‘Sunset Baby’ by Dominique Morriseau.
Where: Primal Forces production at Andrews Living Arts, 23 NW Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday- Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Dec. 21.
Information: 866-811-4111 or www.brtg.org.