Cynical ‘Sunset Baby’ bristles at Actor’s Express

Bold, powerful performances highlight this downbeat drama.

Prolific playwright Dominique Morisseau has quickly become a familiar name on the Atlanta theater scene. During the 2019 season alone, no fewer than three of her racially charged dramas opened here: True Colors completed the trilogy of period pieces set in her native Detroit, with its stagings of both “Paradise Blue” and “Skeleton Crew” (the company having already presented the third, “Detroit ‘67,” in 2015); and Horizon also produced “Pipeline,” one of her most recent works.

After a couple of pandemic-related postponements, Actor’s Express finally joins the club with “Sunset Baby,” which is among Morisseau’s earliest efforts (penned in 2012). The caustic one-act play involves the volatile reunion between a long-absent father and his embittered daughter. He’s Kenyatta (Eddie Bradley Jr.), a remorseful 1980s political activist newly released from prison. She’s Nina (Brittany Deneen), a resentful street hustler who deals drugs with her boyfriend, Damon (Sariel Toribio).

Credit: Courtesy of Actor’s Express/Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Courtesy of Actor’s Express/Casey Gardner Ford

That there’s more to these characters than meets the eye is a credit to the writer who created them. That they’re as well-played as they are is largely due to the sharp actors — but it’s also partly a good sign about the director who cast them, even though Amanda Washington’s prior experience (as listed in her program bio, at least) has been relatively unseen.

For that matter, take Toribio, whose previous work I’m also unfamiliar with. He’s done a fair number of shows in town exclusively at the Shakespeare Tavern, but he happens to be a totally fresh face and refreshing presence to me. His role as Damon could easily come across as a petty criminal, often fancying himself as a Clyde to Nina’s Bonnie. But when he brags about how well-read he is, or when he pines about political consciousness and “social dynamite” in Brazil, we believe him. When he confesses his own regrets as the neglectful father of an adolescent child, it’s truly poignant.

Bradley strikes an impassioned figure as the contrite Kenyatta, most notably in periodic monologues to the audience about the responsibilities of fatherhood, about revolution and change, freedom lost or never acquired, and, above all, about his unrelenting fear in life. Still, it remains ambiguous whether his reasons for connecting with Nina have as much to do with her as with selfishly wanting to retrieve the unsent love letters written to him — but bequeathed to her — by the fellow radical he abandoned, and who raised their daughter alone as a drug-addicted single mother.

Credit: Courtesy of Actor’s Express/Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Courtesy of Actor’s Express/Casey Gardner Ford

Nina’s seething anger and vehement cynicism resonates tangibly in the bold, galvanizing performance of Deneen, not just in terms of reuniting with the “sperm donor” who is her repentant father, but also in terms of relating to or acknowledging his rebellious past. She yearns for a simpler life away from the chaos of the streets where she and Damon struggle to survive, but when even he inevitably fails her, too, Nina’s bleak outlook only hardens further.

“Sunset Baby” culminates with an emotional flourish that feels somewhat misguided, in the grim context of the rest of the play, or possibly misplaced, given three highly flawed characters who aren’t exactly easy to sympathize with. And whether they’re seeking concrete answers to their existential questions, or simply looking for an escape from the realities of their lives, may not matter in the end.

As Nina has learned to accept, a greater awareness about things isn’t always a “source of liberation”; sometimes, it merely necessitates burying one’s “madness” deeper inside. In a world where nothing seems to be above or beyond scheming or coercing or negotiating for, sometimes the price to be paid can be a lock-box containing thousands of dollars in hard-earned cash. At other times, though, the currency is little more than a bag full of memories and old family snapshots.


THEATER REVIEW

“Sunset Baby”

Through Oct. 16. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20-$38. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.

Bottom line: A downbeat domestic drama, but well-acted.