Ben Onwukwe. Photograph: © Johan Persson
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.