The Past and Future Sunsets of Dominique Morisseau

I first met Dominique Morisseau through the Lark Play Development Center—as a fantastically skilled actress who, for me, originated the role of Camae in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Fast forward several years: again at the Lark, now I am on the final selection committee for Playwrights’ Week, when I read Detroit ’67, a play filled with a beautifully rhythmic language and a dark heart, its characters struggling to stay afloat in the middle of the 1967 Detroit Riots. Dominique’s voice as a playwright immediately stuck in my mind as both street-driven and poetic; her characters ride their charisma as a means to cover up their internal pains.

I learned later that Detroit ’67 is part of a “3-play Detroit cycle,” as Dominique calls it, along with her play Paradise Blue (and the play Skeleton Crew). And while that cycle of plays concerns the rising and falling of Detroit, her play Sunset Baby, which begins November 6th at N.Y.C.’s LAByrinth Theatre Company, is, according to Dominique, very “New York-centric, full of Brooklyn swag and punch.” At the core of Sunset Baby, along with Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue, is the telling of generations, of the struggle to provide for our future children as well as make the most of what our predecessors and parents left for us. In these plays, East New York and Detroit act as backdrops, but it could easily be anywhere in our country as the struggles between the personal and political threaten to get in the way of real change.

In Sunset Baby, a father, Kenyatta, attempts to reconnect with his daughter, Nina, having been out of her life as a political prisoner and former Black revolutionary. And though the salvaging of a relationship is the story, what we watch is a daughter who cannot quite understand what to do with the gifts and hardships her politically-charged parents left for her.

In the play, Nina and her boyfriend, Damon, discuss the unexpected visit of her estranged father who has come asking to see lost letters from his deceased wife, Nina’s mother:

DAMON

What’s he here for? Got a habit?

NINA

Wanted some stuff. But I wasn’t sellin’. He’s….messed up on some…stuff.

DAMON

A customer?

NINA

Wanted to be. But he wants a different product. Ain’t got it, so I sent him on.

DAMON

What’s he want? He got money? We can get it.

NINA

He’s worthless.

DAMON

Yeah?

NINA

Yeah.

Often Dominique’s characters speak about the immediacy of their worlds pressing around them, but underneath there is a softness that shows itself, revealing the hurt that is buried and keeps them from trying to move forward. In Paradise Blue, a blues musician named Blue is lured towards selling his club, which for him holds the demons of his parents inside it, while his girlfriend Pumpkin tries to comfort him.

PUMPKIN

It ain’t gonna be no better in Chicago. It’s pain everywhere.

BLUE

Not this kinda pain, Pumpkin. (pause/an admission) I hear my Mama. I hear her cryin’ sometimes….when I play. I do. She cryin’and I can’t mute her. Can’t do nothin’ but drown in the sound of her wail. Over and over again…

PUMPKIN

Oh baby…

BLUE

I hear Daddy too. He whisper to me, baby. Sound like a ghost or goblin. Like the devil himself. Whispers sound like muffled screams. No music—just chaos. Chaos I can’t stop from swallowing us both whole.

PUMPKIN

 I can love all that chaos away.

Often just under the surface of Dominique’s worlds lie the parents—who have either passed on or moved on. And what we watch, as her plays unfold, are these damaged men and women trying to wrap their minds and lives around what they were left with from their upbringing; trying to figure out how to either conquer the world with it, or let it be their downfall. In Detroit ’67, two siblings, Chelle and Lank, dispute over what to do with money left to them by their parents, as Lank wants to chance the money on purchasing a bar.

CHELLE

I don’t wanna be hustlin’ forever.

LANK

What you wanna do, Chelle? Sit on the money til’ we rot?

CHELLE

I just wanna have somewhere for Julius to return and call home. These parties are temporary. Survivin’. This house and this life is all I need. I don’t wanna take on nothin’ that could make us lose it.

LANK

Don’t you see I’m tryin’ to make things better? Invest this money so it grow into somethin’ more. For you and Julius. Be the man for him that his Daddy woulda been—was he alive.

We often get the sense that what’s at stake is also beyond the characters onstage—they don’t want to waste any potential, or to turn around and let their own children down, as they feel their parents did to them. At the heart of Sunset Baby is a daughter, Nina, who is deeply conflicted with the political change that her mother and father made with their lives, but also the lack of family she was left with as a cost. She herself is still drawn to the movement, as she looks up to her mother’s life, and has linked up with a man who wants to be involved politically. But at the same time she is always cautious about the life she’s creating for her son Julius.

NINA

I don’t want no lavish life.

DAMON

What you want?

NINA

Simple.

DAMON

What’s that mean—simple?

NINA

I’m tired, Damon. You think you more tired of these streets than me, but you ain’t. I don’t want this no more. I never wanted this. What I want? Something easy. Simple. I don’t need to be part of a revolution. I don’t want a movement or a cause. I don’t want a hustle or no fast money. I want a home. I want somewhere I can walk into my space and not have to look over my shoulder or hold my breath. I want some kids of my own. Lie around in a house and read ‘em childrens books by Camille Yarbrough or bell hooks. Learn to bake or somethin’. Have a garden and grow me some vegetables to cook and eat. Paint the living room on a Saturday. Listen to Nina and close my eyes and sleep through the night for once in my fuckin’ life. That’s it. I wanna sit in the horizon somewhere and watch the sun rise and set. I never even saw a fuckin’ sunset! I am not alive here. I am not alive in this chaos—you hear me? I do not want this shit no more.

While we watch the daughter’s struggle in Sunset Baby, we also get a glimpse into the struggle of her father; he often speaks into a video camera, as though trying to speak to his daughter through time, through technology, reaching out where he couldn’t reach in his actual fatherhood. His struggle differs from Nina’s in that it is filled with regret and questioning as to whether what he made with his life was worth it, now watching his own daughter push him away so vehemently.

The father, Kenyatta, tries to explain his choices of the political over the personal:

KENYATTA

You lose intimacy. It makes targets out of the people you love. Do you understand that? It makes family a liability. These are the things you lay on the line if you’re willing to die for progress.

NINA

Fuck your progress! This is your progress, nigga. Me. Here! I’m your fuckin’ progress. This is what you achieved. Shit. Deal with that, nigga. Deal with the sacrificial fuckin’ lamb to your better world. And what is better, hunh? What the fuck did you achieve? My mama died with a broken heart waitin’ on your progress.

What makes these works so relevant, to me, is this grappling with the importance of taking responsibility to do something active against the injustices of the world. It’s the right thing to do, right? But what is the gain, if your own family, your own children, end up worse off because you weren’t around? How do our choices both in our families and our politics lay the ground for the generations to come, and what sort of world are we leaving for them? Dominique’s characters may not have the answers, but her plays pose questions with a resonance that transcends both East New York and Detroit and threatens to become universal.



Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Kamilah Forbes, produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, runs November 6 – December 8 at Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street, Manhattan. For tickets and more information, visit www.labtheater.org/sunset-baby.

Contributor

Matthew Paul Olmos

MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS spent two years in the Mabou Mines/SUITE Resident Artist Program developing his play The Nature of Captivity; he is also a three-time Sundance Institute Fellowship/Residency recipient, New Dramatists Resident Playwright, Baryshnikov Arts Center Resident Artist, Princess Grace Award in Playwriting Awardee, inaugural La MaMa e.t.c.'s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award as selected by Sam Shepard, and an Ensemble Studio Theater lifetime member. His plays have been produced both nationally and internationally, taught in universities, and published by both NoPassport Press and Samuel French. For more information: www.matthewpaulolmos.com

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