What happens to an activist when a movement loses its steam? How do they grapple when the world they wanted never comes to fruition? Who bears the weight of passing the baton to the next generation?

Playwright Dominique Morisseau asks these pressing questions about the cost of activism and resulting trauma in her play, Sunset Baby, onstage at Actor’s Express through October 16. In the play, Nina, the daughter of former Black Panthers, is mourning the loss of her mother while scheming and robbing with her boyfriend, Damon, to get the heck out of New York City. The hustle seems to be going their way, but when her estranged father, Kenyatta, shows up looking for love letters between himself and Ashanti X, Nina is forced to deal with her own fears around love, trust and abandonment.

Brittany Deneen plays the tough and unrelenting Nina in this production. Deneen clutches Nina’s exhaustion, desperation and resistance to feeling all in her fist — then throws it all out onto the stage. She’s needling, prickly and aims to get under everyone’s skin so they don’t get under hers.

Watching Deneen and Sariel Toribio, who plays Damon, spar with each other onstage produces some of the play’s most gripping moments. Damon is a proud Nuyorican and sometimes deadbeat dad, who knows nothing but how to hustle and dominate. Toribio grasps this in a way that makes him magnetic onstage, filling up the space and sucking all the air out of the room every time he enters the sparsely decorated apartment he shares with Nina.

Sunset Baby
Kenyatta, played by Eddie Bradley Jr., says in one of his soliloquies that “revolution is the man in the mirror.”

Eddie Bradley Jr. gives a subdued performance as Kenyatta Shakur, maybe too subdued at times. Morisseau has written a man who holds his cards very close to his chest and is a hustler himself. He has these spoken-word interludes about fatherhood and failure, but Bradley’s performance makes it hard to believe that Kenyatta is genuinely interested in or concerned about Nina.

Amanda Washington helms this production, which is cerebral and fraught with tension. This is one of those quiet plays where all the audience can do is look on. At times, the air is so tight, it seems like if you reached out your hand, you’d be shocked by the electricity around Nina’s studio apartment. This is where Washington succeeds as a director.

However, the tension never being broken gets a bit wearing at times. This is a play where it feels like everyone hates each other and like the one person everyone loved has died. That’s a difficult feeling to carry for 90 minutes without an intermission and very little comic relief.

This melancholia is underscored by Nina Simone’s music. Simone, who was a classically trained pianist, started out performing jazz standards and concertos. However, after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, her music changed. The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements inspired her to sing songs such as “Feeling Good,” “Four Women” and “Mississippi Goddam.”

Simone’s story parallels that of the characters in many ways. By the mid-1970s, Simone left the music industry and suffered from mental-health issues. In the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, the artist’s daughter, Lisa, who is also a singer, describes a tedious relationship with her mother.

Sunset Baby
Toribio, left, grasps the character of Damon in a way that makes him magnetic onstage.

This is perhaps where Sunset Baby finds its intriguing premise. In the last few years, there have been a few movies that attempt to uncover the history of the Black Panthers, such as Night Catches Us, One Night in Miami and Judas and the Black Messiah, but Morisseau delves into the aftermath of unresolved activism trauma. After activists live through protests, raids, arrests and seeing their friends killed, where does the grief go?

In the case of Ashanti X, she turned to drugs to help her cope with the pain. And Kenyatta went to jail, got out and never stopped running. Left in the cross hairs is Nina, who had books and stories but no glory. Everyone is looking for someone to blame, but Nina, Kenyatta and Damon must understand the difference between systemic barriers and personal choices.

Kenyatta says in one of his soliloquies that “revolution is the man in the mirror.” In Sunset Baby, Morisseau shows how movements awaken the collective conscience by disrupting patterns, but the real work begins at home.


Kelundra Smith, an ArtsATL Editor-at-Large, is a critic and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, ESPN’s Andscape, American Theatre and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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