The 1950s had higher employment, and the 1970s had brighter colors and more hair, but the 1960s is the decade that keeps calling to us.
At the beginning of Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company production of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, a critical hit last year at New York City’s cutting-edge Labyrinth Theater Company, a former Black Power leader, Kenyatta (Alexander Thomas), is speaking into a camcorder. His poetic disquisition begins with the word “fatherhood” and ends with fear. After being released from jail for armed robbery, he wants to reunite with his estranged daughter, with whom he has not spoken in a long while. And he wants something from her.
Nina (Gillian Glasco), named for Nina Simone, exhibits only hostility toward him. “You’re a stranger,” she spits out. “Family,” he will later explain, “is one of the things you lose when you’re willing to lay down your life to advance freedom.” That’s not how Nina sees it.
Clad in a booty-tight red dress, high boots and a blonde wig, Nina appears to be selling her body. Instead, she and her partner-lover Damon (Carl Hendrick Louis) have taken on a higher profit enterprise. Nina appears to be the senior partner, not only a decoy with her looks but a ruthless enforcer: “I rob my own people.” Reflectively, though, she recalls that her mother died an addict, and her father’s apparent abandonment of her only exacerbates any hope of reconciliation.
The dead mother left a cache of love letters written to Kenyatta. People still put things on paper in the 1960s. The father wants them back because they are a missing piece of his torn heart. The daughter owns them because they were given to her, and she sees them as readily marketable for legal cash. Because of academic interest in black radicalism, endowed libraries and collectors are bidding to buy them.
Kitchen Theater resident director Margarett Perry, best known for comedies with sparkling wordplay, has championed Sunset Baby from the get-go. Under her practiced hand, the play is as much about the ways two generations torture each other with abrasive language as it is about revolution, family or history.
Feature photo (above): Alexander Thomas and Gillian Glasco in Kitchen Theatre’s Sunset Baby. Photo by Dave Burbank.
Sunset Baby continues with performances on Wednesday, Dec. 10, and Thursday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 12, and Saturday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 14, 4 p.m.; and Wednesday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m., at the Kitchen Theatre Company, 417 W. State St., Ithaca. Call (607) 273-4497.