'Sunset Baby' review — Moses Ingram shines as a woman in a personal revolution

Read our four-star review of Sunset Baby off Broadway, a play by Tony Award nominee Dominique Morisseau, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

See [Sunset Baby]((https://www.newyorktheatreguide.com/show/38922-sunset-baby-tickets) at least for the pleasure of hearing the thumping bass and the holy cry of Nina Simone’s voice that soundtracks the play. And then go for the volcanic eruption of Dominique Morisseau’s words, which toggle effortlessly between the naturalistic and the poetic but sharp.

And then see it for Moses Ingram’s performance as Nina, named for musician/activist Simone as the child of Black revolutionaries. Their work – as embodied by Nina, who lives in a world where injustice and inequity run deep – remains unfinished and, perhaps, uncertain. Ingram’s lines quiver with each ripple of Nina’s ambivalence about her current life and the heartbreak over an undefinable missing part of it.

Nina has made a life for herself in East New York hustling with her boyfriend Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who cuts cocaine in their warmly lit apartment in between rubbing Nina’s feet and trying to maintain a relationship with his 7-year-old son from a previous relationship. Nicholson is funny and empathetic, cementing his character’s awareness of where he exists in the social hierarchy and, at once, prepared to take dynamite to it or build a safe place for himself and Nina. In spite of the respite Damon tries to offer her, Nina remains restless, always a half step ahead and ready to leave if one too many deals spells doom for them both.

Nina has been hardened by the death of her addicted mother and the absence of her father, Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby), who was a political prisoner for much of Nina's adolescence. But the prodigal father returns, in search of letters Nina's mother wrote to Kenyatta while he was in jail. His now-adult daughter must confront the pain of not only his absence, but also the possibly failed revolutionary dreams of both her parents.

Morisseau deals with the complex nature of how even those trying to fight the good fight still have obligations to their loved ones, and the playwright effortlessly shows the sharpness of ideals and the rawness of disappointment in both people and politics.

Morisseau wrote Sunset Baby in 2012, but the play feels as electric as ever, trying to contend with radical thought and the responsibilities held by those with it. Nina isn’t necessarily the person Kenyatta thought she would be, but the resilience, prickly resolve for survival and, in Nina’s own way, revolution still flow through Ingram’s body — even as she puts on her armor in the form of thigh-high boots the color of the deep ocean, a fiery red wig that catches on her earring when she takes it off, and lipstick the hue of her broken heart.

As Nina negotiates her trust of Kenyatta and Damon, capable of both granting her life and jeopardizing it, she moves, panther-esque, along the stage, digging her claws into lines at first gently and then with more ferocity.

These men are her future and her past — and so too, in a way, is Simone. Morisseau’s choice to embed Simone’s music in the work is a thoughtful and rigorous choice, emboldening and deepening the piece. Featuring songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “Feeling Good,” Sunset Baby doesn’t merely employ these tracks to signify a time and place, but forces its characters and setting to be in dialogue with what Simone and other Black radicals dreamt of through art and activism.

Simone’s ghost haunts this work in a subtle way, shaping the rhythm of scenes and echoing in the actors’ voices. Ingram in particular, under director Steve H. Broadnax III’s elegant direction, makes you believe revolution is only a matter of time.

Sunset Baby is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 10. Get Sunset Baby tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Moses Ingram and Russell Hornsby in Sunset Baby. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

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