Sunset Baby - Review

A clash between the personal and political in the New York ghetto.

Midway through Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, New York hustler Damon nods to the academic Stephen Spitzer’s theory of social junk versus social dynamite. Social junk, he explains, are those who have fallen through society’s cracks. They are often helpless, dependent on those around them, “stuck on government handouts". Social dynamite, on the other hand, refers to those who have also fallen through the cracks of society – but they fight back. They are all the hope that the world has for a revolution.
 
Morisseau’s play, which is premiering at the Gate Theatre in a production directed by Charlotte Westenra, appears on the surface to present the gulf between these social groups. Nina’s mother Ashanti X, surely a nod to the more famous Malcolm, has recently died of a drug overdose, leaving Nina to, in her words, “sell drugs and rob niggas” with her boyfriend Damon (Chu Omambala) on a New York project. The play opens with her estranged father, Kenyatta Shakur - whose name is inspired by one of Morrisseau’s heroes, the late hip hop artist Tupac Shakur – turning up at Nina’s flat. Once a Black Revolutionary and political prisoner, Kenyatta is returning to his daughter’s life for the first time since he walked out on her when she was five years old. He says he wants valuable letters which belonged to her mother, but Nina refuses to be interested in her father’s politics, remembering him only as the man who broke her mother’s heart and left them to fend for themselves. Her past has rubbed off on her present: she worries that Damon will eventually estrange his own son like her father did her.
 
I entered the theatre eager to explore the character of Kenyatta. Though he was interpreted perfectly well by Ben Onwukwe, there wasn’t as much depth to him as you might expect in somebody who has devoted his life and sacrificed his family in the name of social justice. Damon is more interesting: a tough man used to street life, he often becomes aggressive with Nina, and there is one tense scene where we expect the worst. But there is more to him than we think: he tells Kenyatta that he is well-read (and citing Spitzer is testament to this), and is desperate to escape the life of a hustler and travel the world. Chu Omambala masters the role perfectly, displaying the frustration, aggression and sharp, practical intelligence not unlike that seen in the Baltimore drug dealers of The Wire.
 
It is London-born Michelle Asante, however, who steals the show. With her coarse and convincing New York accent, she is hard and tough, but allows for poignant glimpses of vulnerability to shine through. There is a scene in which she is waiting for Kenyatta to visit: shedding her wig, tight dress and hooker boots for a demure trouser-jacket combination, she gets out her beloved Ethiopian honey wine which Damon has told us she adores, and fussily creates a coffee table out of an upturned box. Only a brilliant actor could marry the desperation to make a good impression with the defensive aggression required to strap a gun to her waist just seconds later. With such a guarded character, a lot of what we learn of Nina is subtext - and Asante brings that through marvellously. Complimented by the claustrophobia of the intimate Gate theatre and our subsequent proximity to the realistic stage setting, we are in Nina’s flat, in her life, in her head. We feel her frustrations, her anxieties, her sheer exhaustion.
 
I hope that in including Spitzer’s theory, Morisseau is playing with our judgements. Nina is visceral and wonderful, and to describe her as “social junk” would be a discredit to her character. Her parents named her after the late great Nina Simone, and so much of her identity is wrapped up in that of the singer. Simone’s sassy, silky voice fills the theatre in almost all of Nina’s scenes; she even stuffs the precious letters, the prop that ties her family together, behind a portrait of her namesake which hangs on the wall. But the connection is fragile, and as we hear the “Ni-Na, Ni-Na” of sirens blaring through the mean streets outside, we realise that any symbol attached to our heroine represents only a segment of her complex and erratic personality.
 
Sunset Baby is, first and foremost, a play about the personal and the political colliding, the tension between familial and social responsibilities. And at a time when America’s first black president is facing election for a second term in office, the hustler’s life that Nina and Damon are condemned to – and the very fact that so many are falling through the cracks of society at all – challenges the notion that Obama’s presidency has brought about significant change for many African-Americans. 
Ben Onwukwe. Photograph: © Johan Persson
Getty
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred