Sunset Baby, playing at Azuka Theatre through Nov. 24, is a Dominique Morisseau miniature, compared to epics such as Mud Row at People’s Light last summer or Detroit ’67 at McCarter Theatre last fall.
What a talent trove Azuka has assembled for it. Start with MacArthur- and Tony-winner Morisseau and Barrymore Award-winner Amina Robinson as director.
Then consider the cast. Victoria Aaliyah Goins is frustrated, caustic, haughty Nina, who poses as a prostitute so her partner, Damon (tremendous Eric Carter), can rob people. Steven Wright plays her tortured father, the former black liberation activist Kenyatta Shakur.
Let’s also praise Larry Fowler Jr., whose sound design laces the production with voiceovers and music.
Nina’s mother, the black liberation activist Ashanti X, has died, leaving Nina the letters her mother had sent to her father, Kenyatta, Ashanti X’s partner in revolution. Nina and Damon are close to their goal of “10 stacks,” or $10,000, and plan to bust out of their urban squalor and resettle in London.
Damon veers close to the hustler cliché, all overwhelming language, overwhelming sex, playing the gun-toting thief and pimp with, sometimes, a heart. But he’s brilliant, “well read,” endowed with a Sherlockian sixth sense for people’s motives and machinations.
And he’s wracked with guilt over fatherhood. He’s late to his son DJ’s eighth birthday — yet DJ hugs him. Amazed by his son’s love, he fears he “ain’t worth a damn as a man or a daddy.”
Here comes conflict: Kenyatta, out of prison, is looking for those letters because … well, that’s an issue. He says, “I just want to read them.”
All three are hustlers, looking to steal what’s not theirs or get it criminally cheap. Each lies to, swindles, or robs the other. You can’t for a minute believe any of them.
Political and generational conflict grate. Nina thinks the black liberation movement left the world worse and trashier. “I don’t need to be part of a revolution,” she shouts. “I don’t want a movement or a cause.”
She simply has no connection to those days. She’s a towering cynic: “Only thing I value is money. Everything else breaks, wears off, or dies on you.” (Goins delivers this so offhandedly it slaps you all the harder.)
She’s wrong a lot. She says she has never seen a sunset, unaware her parents had once nicknamed her Sunset Baby, as Kenyatta gently tries to show her.
She has two icons: her namesake, Nina Simone; and her mother, Ashanti X, in truth a failed revolutionary and crack addict. Her mother-worship is almost childish, seeing her as all things good, Kenyatta as old, used up, and stinking of prison.
At the end, there are questions. Are we supposed to cheer when hustling rewards the hustler? Hmm. But brilliantly, Morisseau braids together her two great themes: Love is what we talk about when we talk about revolution. And vice versa.
Azuka Theatre production through Nov. 24 at Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St.
Tickets: Pay what you decide after seeing the show; reservations free online.
Information: 215-563-1100, azukatheatre.org