'Sunset Baby' by acclaimed playwright Dominique Morisseau now at Actor's Express

The play "Sunset Baby" is on stage now at Actor's Express through Oct. 16. (Courtesy of Casey Gardner Ford)

The play “Sunset Baby” by Dominique Morisseau is the story of one family’s journey through rebellion, abandonment, and reconciliation.

Now on stage at Actor’s Express through Oct. 16, director Amanda Washington has said the play will “hold your breath hostage from beginning to end.”

Washington, who is also the artistic director of Actor’s Express, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about this new production.

Interview highlights follow below.

The electrifying character craft and riveting drama of Morisseau’s work:

“It’s like a river. It just flows, and the water goes over rocks, and then it gets into a little bit of whirlwind, and then in certain places, it empties out into a bigger mass or body of water, and then it keeps pushing forward and finds a different stream to go down,” Washington reflected. “Reading ‘Sunset Baby,’ it’s similar… but this one, it almost felt like a boxing match, with the gut-wrenching and the punches that were thrown.”

“These characters are relentless in their pursuit of living to their fullest ability and living to their fullest dreams. Nina, specifically, she’s a really tough character on paper. It always seems as if she’s angry and that she has lots of walls and doesn’t let people in. However, when you really actually dissect the words and actions and intentions that you put towards the character Nina, she’s so layered,” said Washington. “Brittany Deneen, the actress playing Nina in our production at Actor’s Express – I gave her the direction of thinking of Nina as a teapot or a tea kettle, and at certain times, a tea kettle is just simmering, and then it boils, and then it whistles.”

Unpacking the complicated history of Nina’s long-absent father, Kenyatta:

“Kenyatta is just being released from prison. He was arrested for robbing a truck. It doesn’t really get more specific after that… but he’s been in prison for a very long time. He’s missed the entire childhood and early- to mid-twenties of Nina’s life because, in the script, she’s in her late twenties. And so there’s just all this time of absenteeism. But also, I say he was involved in this robbery; he was also a part of the Black Liberation Movement, and so in a sense, this work that he was doing could have been associated with his activism for the Black Liberation Movement.”

“[Nina] completely shuts down, and she kind of calls him out, saying, ‘You only returned because you want something from me, not because you actually wanted to see me or see how I was doing. You only returned because you heard about letters that your lover, Ashanti X, my mother, wrote to you.”

How “Sunset Baby” challenges us to think with nuance about crime:

“I definitely believe that not everyone has a choice in how they make their money. They just know they have to make it if they want to be able to keep the lights on in their house… and all the other things that are just basic human necessities,” said Washington. “We’re not all given the same opportunities, and sometimes you do have to go at the unconventional path or the path that is highly frowned upon. And so I think it’s a huge commentary on, ‘Okay, activism asks you to do this. Would we consider it a crime as long as we’re saying it’s activism?’ However, if we just see it as an everyday person on the streets doing it, is it considered a crime?'”

“Sunset Baby” is on stage now at Actor’s Express through Oct. 16. Tickets and more information are available at https://actors-express.com/play-page-sunset-baby/.