A middle-aged man speaks into a tape recorder, musing about what it means to be a parent. Guilt? Child support? One thing for certain: Fear. “Decades and decades of fear.”
What is this man, portrayed with a sincere yoke of weariness and wariness by Marcel Davis in the play “Sunset Baby,” so afraid of? Confronting his long-estranged, embittered daughter Nina (Aishe Keita) with a meaningful request? Or what lies ahead for Nina, a drug dealer working the mean streets of New York City?
Both concerns burden Kenyatta, in this rough-edged and searing drama by Dominique Morisseau now at Arts West.
This is the second play ArtsWest has produced by Morisseau, a writer who is having quite a moment. She was nominated for a 2019 Tony Award for penning the Broadway hit “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” She’s now authoring another jukebox tuner, about the long-running soul-music TV show, “Soul Train.”
But “Sunset Baby” is closer to much of her previous dramatic work, including “Skeleton Crew” (staged in 2018 by ArtsWest), part of Morisseau’s three-play “Detroit Trilogy” that candidly considers the everyday challenges of working-class blacks in the Motor City.
An earlier play, set in New York, “Sunset Baby” has the same nubby texture of coarseness and heartfelt lyricism as the Detroit tales. The one-act, three-way portrait of Nina, her boyfriend Damon (Tyler Trerise) and Kenyatta could have been filled out more amply, and some background details are sketchy.
But the characters are multidimensional, and have the sweet/sour sting of reality. You want to know more about them, and what becomes of them. That’s a good thing.
Nina, for instance, radiates the toughness and ferocity of a hardened outlaw. Played with layered authority and poignancy by Keita, we meet her in her shabby New York City apartment in full street hustling regalia: she’s encased in a rhinestone-studded black leather skirt and bustier, thigh-high stiletto boots and a plastic-fantastic white-blond wig. Yet under all that stiff dominatrix armor is someone grieving the loss of her crack-addict mother, and plotting her way toward a better, softer future.
Valerie Curtis-Newton’s direction accentuates Nina’s duality by lingering over her dressing for battle — and later stripping off that uniform to reveal the anxious, vulnerable young woman within. Keita covers these and other aspects of the character seamlessly.
Trerise’s Damon, Nina’s lover and partner in crime, also is more varied than our first impression of him as simply a ruthless petty thug would suggest. Just as Kenyatta struggles over his limitations as a long-absent father, Damon tries (and often fails) to do right by a 7-year-old son being raised by his ex-girlfriend. And his dependency on Nina is (almost) as strong as his exploitation of her.
In his fraught reunion with Nina, we discover Kenyatta was a radical black nationalist, jailed for a politically motivated robbery. He apparently left his daughter and wife for the cause, and to protect them as the FBI began closing in. But his political past, and why he abandoned his family entirely, remain hazy.
What Kenyatta wants now from Nina (named after singer Nina Simone, who dominates D.R. Amromin’s sound design) is access to love letters his wife wrote him (but never sent) while he was imprisoned. Nina insists he has no right to see them — and they are a valuable commodity, in more ways than one.
If the struggle over the letters is a device that’s not crystal clear, the tensions between these flawed but compelling people are. One doesn’t expect a happy ending, and Morisseau may be cutting a few corners to give us something resembling one. But it’s still moving to finally hear the voice of the late mother and wife whom Nina and Kenyatta long for, and who binds them in spite of everything that has wrenched them apart.
“Sunset Baby” by Dominique Morisseau. Through Oct. 20; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $20-$42; 206-938-0339, artswest.org