A couple of months ago I saddled up to my Netflix and watched the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? For an hour or so I absorbed the story of singer/activist Nina Simone and got teary at her political and personal struggles. More recently when I sat down at City Theatre’s production of Sunset Baby I was shown the struggles of another woman named Nina. That’s not a coincidence: the character Nina was named after Nina Simone by her parents. Nina has taken to listening to the songs of Ms. Simone in her apartment, which serve as the soundtrack for the show. Just like when I watched the documentary, Sunset Baby allowed me to follow the story of another strong woman just trying to survive the world she lives in.
Nina is a young woman living in a dingy apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. Her mother, a well-known black activist and a drug addict, has passed away a few months earlier. Nina makes her money by pushing drugs and robbing men with her boyfriend Damon. The opening scene sees Nina dressing in revealing clothing to go out and then going to her kitchen drawer and casually pulling a gun out of it. Nina is a hardened woman living a dangerous life, and she is used to it. She receives an unexpected visit from her father Kenyatta, who was recently released from prison. Nina considers her father a stranger since he was never around during her childhood, and greets him with hostility. He claims to be there to read letters Nina was left from her mother, although Nina points out the letters are of great value to anyone who would want to publish the words of the late activist. This distrust is the main source of conflict between them; is Kenyatta there for love or is he looking out for himself?
Over the one-act play we see many sides of Nina. In the second scene Nina comes home still dressed in her “street” clothes. Over a somber Nina Simone song, Nina changes out of her street attire and into some sweats, removes her wig and makeup, and fixes herself a cup of tea. Joniece Abbott-Pratt sells these silent actions by giving Nina a vulnerability so different from the woman we met earlier. Nina is tough as nails, and will yell and defend herself against anyone who gives her trouble. Inside her, though, is a woman who just wants to escape to anywhere else and live a much simpler life. Nina’s plan with Damon is to make enough money to move away and give up this life she knows she doesn’t really want. Ms. Abbott-Pratt does a great job at capturing the complicated mind of Nina. Nina has an understandably harsh world view and we see her facing some big demons. While she bends a little bit to the pressure she never fully breaks down; Nina is a survivor through and through.
The men in her life are just as complicated. Keith Randolph Smith plays Kenyatta as a charismatic and soft-spoken man, and at the beginning you truly believe he wants to reconnect with his daughter and his late wife. His monologues that occur between scenes are said into a video camera that is projected onto the back of the set. Kenyatta is leaving video messages for his daughter, his version of letters to get out everything he’s wanted to say to her over the years. But, as both Nina and Damon point out, Kenyatta is no stranger to hustling people and while his intentions may be pure he is not above using manipulation to get what he wants. Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson) appears to be in a loving “Bonne and Clyde” relationship with Nina, and Mr. Nicholson gives him a charm and intelligence one would not automatically expect from a drug-dealing boyfriend type. Beneath the surface is the undeniable truth that they are living a dangerous life and that Damon has the capacity to be a dangerous man. There is no “good” or “bad” with any of these characters; they are people trying to get by.
In her program notes playwright Dominique Morisseau asks of black activists “how do you build a world and a home at the same time?”. Nina’s mother was trying to create a better world for all black lives, including her daughter’s, but in her struggle she ended up leaving her daughter in an undesirable situation. Nina’s personal struggle is in trying to build a life for herself. Her mother may have made some changes in the world, but Nina’s going to have to be the one to create her own personal happiness. Nina craves a simple life when her current one is very complicated and full of secrets.
In a way, Sunset Baby shows how difficult it can be to achieve happiness in the world. In the process of changing things for the better there are bound to be casualties, whether they’re actual lives lost or important relationships abandoned. The end of the play was met with some mild griping from my fellow audience members, although whether that was from confusion or just dissatisfaction I can’t say. I liked it though; it ended on a hopeful note for Nina. It wasn’t a “happily ever after” story, but the story of a survivor. Because at the end of the day, we’re all Nina and we just have to survive.
Presented by City Theatre Company
Directed by Jade King Carroll
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Designed by Tony Ferrieri (scenery), Angela M. Vesco (costumes), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), Joe Pino (sound), Kristi Jan Hoover (photos)
Starring Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Nina), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Damon), Keith Randolph Smith (Kenyatta).
Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Sunset Baby runs until December 13th. Tickets and more information can be found here.