What happens to old revolutionaries? There’s no twilight home for played-out activists, and if we are to believe Dominique Morisseau’s new play, no hope that their sunset babies will care for them as dotage settles in for the night. Instead, old dreams of a bright new future are the backdrop to a sorry tale of money, soured ambitions, and absentee fathers, set in a ghetto where subverting capitalism goes by an older name.
Nina (Michelle Asante), the sunset baby of the title, is the fiery, gun-toting hustler daughter of Ashanti X, famous black revolutionary, and Kenyatta (Ben Onwukwe), a political prisoner who missed out on her childhood. His abrupt reappearance on the scene after her mother’s death from crack addiction is prompted by more than sentimentality, though; Nina has letters from Ashanti X to him in jail that have sparked a scholarly bidding war, and he is keen to secure them, and ready to pay out. Little room though there generally is in Nina’s heart for emotion of any kind, she wants the letters for herself, to the exasperation of her boyfriend Damon (Chu Omambala), a drug dealer and thief well ready for retirement.
Nina is at the heart of this play, and the setting is her house, her rules; effective design from Francesca Reidy creates a minutely realistic, leather sofa’d American interior familiar from any number of sitcoms, but with a grimy, shiftless edge that hints at the danger under her domesticity, the power of the gun on her diamanté belt. This play suffers, though, from being rather too firmly set in Nina’s territory.
Her life as we see it is focused around two failing relationships, father-daughter and girlfriend-boyfriend, but both lack tension thanks to the unsmiling power of her character, the lack of any vulnerability to make us believe she’ll put up with anything other than her own way. Her relationship with Damon lacks the humour, warmth and silliness you’d expect from a self-styled Bonnie and Clyde; long winter evenings can hardly sail by for this pair, glowering at each other over Ritz crackers and the flicker of the Travel Channel, while their sex scene is disturbing in its dead eyed, grudging submission. Some moments suggest Nina’s softness, like her unravelling from thigh-high booted hustler to grey marled huddle of tears – others feel like filler, with lengthy interludes of wig and make-up applying revealing a psychology little more than skin deep.
It is Kenyatta’s role to interject some philosophical depth into proceedings; speaking into a video camera as though making a documentary of his own mental disintegration, he expresses himself in abstracts, in revolutionary platitudes that, in their lifelessness, suggest the impossibility of resuscitating dead movements.
The play is at its most thought-provoking when he and Damon negotiate the line between combating capitalism and criminality, between protecting young men from a flawed justice system and harbouring felons – a line which his daughter has crossed, but retaining all the while the fascinating vigour and intelligence of her activist parents. Morisseau outlines social and ideological disintegration in searingly bleak strokes, drawing parallels – two absentee fathers, two jail terms – through the text, but she seldom shades in the human, living details that should complete the picture. Altogether, the tone is that of the kind of documentary that tears families apart; blank into-the-camera misery is leavened with occasional sentiment,but not humour, compelling, but not stirring to action.