TheaterWorks is currently presenting an electric production of Dominique Morisseau’s sizzling play, “Sunset Baby.” Focusing on the lives of three people, this play actually makes larger comments about race and identity in one’s culture. The canny director of the show, Reginald L. Douglas, has staged “Sunset Baby” within an inch of its life, in a tight and powerful 90 minute production. This show is also blessed with a trio of ideal actors, who all seem to embody their characters completely. “Sunset Baby” is a beautifully written play and it is receiving an immensely satisfying staging at TheaterWorks.
The first character the audience sees when the play starts is the excellent Tony Todd, as Kenyatta, who appears in a single spotlight and addresses a few words, almost in as if he is trying to send a message to someone. Soon after, the lights come up on the character of Nina (the divine Brittany Bellizeare) in her apartment as she is getting dressed to go out. This single unit set, sleekly designed by Alexander Woodward, is where all the action of the play takes place and, during the course of the show, one can see the characters trying to make connections with each other and also attempting to find some kind of peace in their lives. The third actor in the show, by the way, is the terrific Carlton Byrd, playing the character of Nina’s somewhat shady boyfriend Damon.
I would hate to give too much of the play away, because there are a number of secrets and surprises in “Sunset Baby,” that are only gradually revealed. It must be mentioned, though, that the playwright is masterful at writing dialogue that feels entirely genuine and her use of language falls beautifully on the ear. Dominique Morisseau is able to take her trio of characters and create an entire world through both the words that they say, as well as the words that they are unable to say.
Of course, “Sunset Baby” would never work without good actors playing these three parts, and TheaterWorks is blessed to have dynamite performers portraying the trio of characters. Even though the actors get about equal time on stage, the play most definitely belongs to Brittany Bellizeare, as Nina. Fittingly, the songs that we hear throughout the show are of those of the immortal Nina Simone, whom Bellizeare’s character was named after.
Nina is an extremely complex character and this actress is able to convey so many different emotions practically all at once and sometimes without the aid of dialogue. Adding to the appeal of this character is that she looks fabulous throughout, wearing a succession of gorgeous costumes, expertly designed by Karen Perry. Yet, however she is dressed, Brittany Bellizeare always makes sure that the audience can see straight into Nina’s heart.
As Nina’s boyfriend, Damon, Carlton Byrd is extremely fine and he seems to do the most talking out of the three characters. Damon is always on the hustle, with the dream of sometime getting to a better way of living, and he is constantly dragging Nina into his world. Carlton Byrd’s performance, like Bellizeare’s, is also multi-dimensional, and, even when his character is spouting off at the mouth at where he wants to get in life, one can almost see his underlying feelings and motives.
And then there is Tony Todd as Kenyatta. This actor is perhaps best remembered for creating the title role in the film “Candyman” in the 1990s, but Todd’s stage presence is memorable and significant, and not just because this actor is a large man. Out of the three characters, Kenyatta seems to be the most desperate and the one most in the need of rescue and Todd is able to convey that sense of vulnerability throughout the show. And the fact that he is physically more imposing than his costars only makes his plight all the more heartbreaking.
Director Reginald L. Douglas is able to expertly mine all the emotions and complexities in “Sunset Baby,” as well as drawing out such wonderful performances from his actors. It must be stated that there is a good deal of humor in this play, as well, and “Sunset Baby” proves to be just as entertaining as it is ultimately touching. For a sensational night at the theater right now, I doubt that you could do better than TheaterWorks’ superb production of “Sunset Baby.”
Performances of “Sunset Baby” at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT continue through February 19th. For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: (L-R): Tony Todd and Brittany Bellizeare
Photo by Lanny Nagler