Actor Victoria Aaliyah Goins burns bright at the center of Sunset Baby, which opens the season at Azuka Theatre. Dominique Morriseau’s family drama benefits from strong design elements and solid acting across the board, but it is Goins who captivates, energizes, and astonishes the audience throughout.
Goins’s performance as Nina, the conflicted daughter of Black liberation activists, also buoys the play in its shaggier moments. Sunset Baby is the fourth Morriseau work to be seen locally in the span of a year, and it’s easy to understand why Philadelphia-area companies have taken a shine to this playwright. Morriseau infuses her complicated scenarios with levity and tension, and she creates characters who buzz with feeling and sympathy. She often addresses working-class issues with a refreshing air of authenticity and an absence of pandering.
The nascent dramatist
Yet Sunset Baby, which dates from 2013, bears the mark of a nascent dramatist. (Morriseau began her career as an actor before transitioning to playwriting.) Although the entire work comprises a slim ninety minutes, it’s full-to-bursting with plot points—including some that inevitably turn into plot holes. At times, Morriseau can’t seem to decide whether she wants to write a crime caper, a relationship melodrama, or a saga on parental estrangement. Often, she tries to fit it all into one frame.
Morriseau’s dialogue still crackles with wit and restlessness, although the play’s structure too frequently cedes the stage to monologues that end up feeling like interruptions. These are mostly delivered by Kenyatta (Steven Wright), Nina’s father, who returns to her life after a stint in prison for robbing an armored car in the name of revolution. He finds a daughter who, along with her boyfriend Damon (Eric Carter), poses as a prostitute to sell drugs and roll unsuspecting johns.
Nina’s present is not exactly the future Kenyatta envisioned, but his return has an ulterior motive: Nina possesses a stack of unsent love letters written by her late mother (an activist who turned to substance abuse) that gained in value after her death. A good portion of the play unspools as a cat-and-mouse game between Nina and Kenyatta about who can rightfully claim the letters, and whether their true value is monetary or sentimental.
This storyline ends up being the least satisfying, as it privileges plot over character development. And although Amina Robinson directs her three actors to project deep-seated relationships and conflicts, she cannot always maintain the momentum. Those monologues keep coming at a predictable clip, usually with Wright delivering them from the far side of Dirk Durossette’s efficiency-apartment set, forcing the audience to look away from the center of the action.
Wright acts these moments with conviction, alternating tenderness and bitterness over the fumbled and abandoned dreams of his life. Carter projects the seductive and threatening elements that bisect Damon’s personality—he is a man who tellingly describes himself as “only half-bad,” inviting us to see both his charisma and the darkness underpinning it. But the play belongs to Nina, the “sunset baby” of the title, and the production belongs to Goins, who continues (after Maria Marten and Fishskin Trousers) to establish herself as one of Philadelphia’s most interesting and versatile young actors.
Nina is named for Nina Simone, and the legendary singer’s sonorous voice envelopes the Bluver Theatre in Larry D. Fowler Jr.’s excellent sound design. In much the same vein, Goins fills the stage with a level of emotional honesty you can’t turn away from. Her Nina is a woman who was raised on ideals and promises that didn’t pan out; she regularly conveys the disillusionment that drove her into her current state of life. But she also shows the resourcefulness that marks Nina as a survivor, and the hopefulness of her parents’ dreams that still exists, buried somewhere deep inside her. It’s a smart, funny, and brave interpretation of a complicated character.
Sunset Baby may not be top-drawer Morriseau—for that, look to plays like Mud Row, which People’s Light premiered earlier this year—but Azuka’s well-made assumption has much going in its favor. Its most valuable asset is Goins, in a performance that demands to be seen.
What, When, Where
Sunset Baby. By Dominique Morriseau. Directed by Amina Robinson. Azuka Theatre. Through November 24, 2019, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is an ADA-compliant venue, with gender-neutral restrooms. All Azuka Theatre performances are pay-what-you-decide.