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
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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times