Thursday, 20 September 2012

Theatre review: Sunset Baby

Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby is the final play in Christopher Haydon's inaugural season at the Gate, entitled "RESIST!" and looking at revolutions and the people behind them. But it also seems to me a good bridge to the already-announced next season, themed around "Aftermath," as it looks at how the crucial figures in an uprising deal with the rest of their lives when the fight that defined them no longer takes up their whole lives - especially where it leaves their family relationships. Ashanti X was a leading figure in the Black Power movement, but she died a crack addict. Her daughter Nina (Michelle Asante) is a drug dealer and thief whose only legacy from her mother is a collection of letters she wrote to Nina's father Kenyatta after he left them, but never posted. Now Kenyatta (Ben Onwukwe) has returned to claim the letters.

Of course he won't get them as easily as all that, nor will it be easy to forge a relationship with the daughter who not only grew up without him, but whose departure she blames for her mother's slide into drugs. When Kenyatta tries to go via Nina's boyfriend Damon (Chu Omambala) a further complication arises, as the letters of two key figures in the movement are valuable, sought after by academics, and Damon isn't about to see them go for free. Charlotte Westenra directs a tight production that hits a lot of emotional buttons as well as raising some interesting points, and Asante is outstanding as Nina, bringing both the lightning-fast aggressive dialogue as she vents at her long-absent father, and the vulnerability when the men in her life aren't looking.

Francesca Reidy's detailed set takes us into Nina's apartment, and as is a bit of a Gate trademark it hides a couple of surprises. Much of the rest of the play's atmosphere is set by Nina Simone, who the main character is named after, her songs playing at significant moments (and making me think I should download a couple of them) and a framed photo of the singer looming over the room and providing a plot twist. Morisseau interestingly charts the way people fighting for the future can inadvertently betray their own children's - not just in the obvious case of Kenyatta, but also more subtly in the unseen Ashanti. There's a somewhat clunky appearance by Chekhov's gun (and holding it sideways, really? Is this a 1980s cop show?) but mostly there's little to criticise here, a show that raises some interesting points about where the revolutionaries are left when the revolution's behind them.

Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau is booking until the 20th of October at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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