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‘Sunset Baby’ Explores Complex Human Relationships

As we commemorate the anniversary of DC’s Compensated Emancipation Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1862, this special Theater Night column reviews a play that questions what freedom means: Freedom for one or many, the consequences of freedom of choice and the effects of fighting for freedom on those we love.

Grab your print copy of the April edition of Hill Rag to read the reviews of Rhiana Yazzie’s Nancy at the Mosaic Theater (showing 28 Mar – 21 Apr) and a Q&A with Simon Godwin, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, about his upcoming production of Macbeth.

Sunset Baby, Anacostia Playhouse (2020 Shannon Pl. SE)

Showing April 3 (preview) through April 28, Tickets $35-$50

Detroit-born playwright Dominique Morisseau’s writing has become legendary within the academy of African American stage fiction. Her works – The Detroit Project, Paradise Blue and Confederates, amongst others – tackle the long and short-term effects of social ills through relatable characters that shake loose the stereotypes imposed upon them by historical legacies of disenfranchisement.

It seems like theatergoers just can’t get enough Morisseau. She was listed as one of the Top 20 Most Produced Playwrights in America. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018, and this month DC audiences will be treated to 1st Stage Associate Artistic Director Deidra LaWan Starnes’ interpretation of Morisseau’s Sunset Baby at the Anacostia Playhouse.

What is it about Morisseau’s work that keeps us wanting more? “Dominique does such an amazing job of showing Black people that are complex and human; not all the way good or bad, not an archetype or stereotype. Just human,” says Tierra Burke, who plays urban hustler Nina in LaWan Starnes’ interpretation of Sunset Baby. “Any actor would love the opportunity to give justice to that, and that’s what the audience wants to experience.”

Tierra Burke (Nina) and DeJeanette Horne (Kenyatta). Photo: Courtesy Trixie Zhang, Anacostia Playhouse

Burke’s character is the fast-talking, cynical, street-smart daughter of Black Liberation activist Kenyatta Shakur (played by DeJeanette Horne). In the play, Kenyatta makes an unexpected appearance in Nina’s life after years of absence, for motives that aren’t as clear as they might at first appear. The nuclear fallout that results when these two worlds collide, while Nina has to negotiate both her relationship with her father and her partner in life and crime Damon (played by Shawn Sebastian Naar), is what Sunset Baby explores.

All the action takes place in Nina’s cramped, shabby apartment, which focuses the drama like a magnifying glass. The stained walls of this grimy space become a metaphor for the defenses that Nina has erected to shield her heart. “Nina grew up feeling like she was lacking love, and the borders she put up to protect herself kept out the one thing she needed to be free,” Burke explains, “but you see those breaking down the more she finds communication with her father.”

Sunset Baby is an intricate tapestry of complex threads woven together by Morisseau in honor of the Black Power movement. Names of characters have been chosen to celebrate figureheads of the struggle for freedom in the late 1960s. Nina Simone, the celebrated songstress who used her lyrics as tools of protest, lends her name to the play’s lead character. Then, as Burke points out, there’s Morisseau’s own declaration that the play was inspired by Tupac Shakur, from whom Nina’s father Kenyatta draws his last name. “He was revolution and rebellion at the same time,” Burke says about Tupac.

Shawn Sebastian Naar (Damon) and Tierra Burke (Nina). Photo: Courtesy Trixie Zhang, Anacostia Playhouse

Burke identifies what she terms a “juxtaposition between revolution and rebellion” in each of the play’s three characters, and how both of these facets exist within a tenuous balance that eventually forms a space in the play where compromise, love and progress are the results. “There’s Nina and Damon and Kenyatta. Kenyatta took love out of the equation in the search for freedom and that starved Nina of love.”

“Nina finds freedom in the end! I’m so happy for my girl, she does!” Burke laughs. Each character finds freedom in their own way by facing their own identity and the way they view love for themselves and the people around them. It seems like every character is fighting for freedom. But Morisseau also makes it clear that this play is about love. And what you find in each character’s journey is that’s their way to freedom: Finding love in themselves or love in forgiveness.

Does Burke identify with the character she’s playing? “Oh yeah. Nina is soft and poetic,” Burke said. “But she has to come across as this hard, rough and raunchy girl to survive. I feel that. It’s hard to be soft and taken seriously as a Black woman. A lot of Black women are fighting to not be seen as an angry Black woman, but we need to address the fact that we have reasons to be angry. If we can address that first, a lot of people will be able to let go.”

Take friends, family and neighbors to see Sunset Baby at the Anacostia Playhouse this April. You’re guaranteed to be talking about it around the dinner table for the next few months.


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