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
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496