Showing How Black Liberation Gave Way to Hip-Hop

Nadège August and Chris Gardner star as small-time criminals in Sunset Baby.
Nadège August and Chris Gardner star as small-time criminals in Sunset Baby.
Photo by Jackson Kroopf

At the moment, Dominique Morisseau is the best kind of homeless. Just days before speaking with L.A. Weekly, the Detroit native had uprooted herself from Brooklyn to make her way out to Los Angeles. She was scrambling to find an apartment the same week as her first job in Hollywood, as a writer on Showtime's dark comedy Shameless. This spring, by coincidence, Morisseau is making her L.A. debut in yet another way: Her acclaimed Sunset Baby is seeing its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theater.

The play, which has already played to admiring reviews in London and New York (The New York Times called it "smart and bracing," while The Guardian said it "sings with intelligence"), centers on a family not so much dysfunctional as destroyed. Kenyatta (Vincent J. Isaac) tries to reconnect with his adult daughter, Nina (Nadège August), after he's spent the lion's share of her childhood in prison, a consequence of his militant activism in the 1970s. Nina grew up in his absence with a drug-addicted mother, feeling abandoned and betrayed, and growing coldly hardened by all those formative years spent hustling to survive.

She's hustling still, perpetrating small-time robberies with her drug-dealing boyfriend, Damon (Chris Gardner). Their disillusionment around the failed revolution of the 1970s Black Power movement gets at the play's central concerns: the personal costs born by those burning to change the world and the wider social implications of what happened when the Black Liberation Movement gave way to the hip-hop generation.

"The hip-hop generation maintained the fire and the fight and the passion of the Black Liberation Movement, but it abandoned the community and the socialistic aspect of the movement, adopting more of a capitalistic mentality," Morisseau says. "That abandonment creates gaps. It's almost like we can't see ourselves in each other, even though we're direct descendants of each other."

Morisseau, 36, says the play, and the inspiration for Nina, grew initially from her fascination with the tragically short life of Tupac Shakur, son of two Black Panthers. "He was so brilliant but also destructive. I was interested in how does somebody have both of those things going on at the same time."

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She also drew on the private lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and on the political writing of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, the types of works that featured in her own family's library. "My father was not an activist," she says, "but he was very activist-minded."

On the whole, however, Sunset Baby is animated more by compassion and relationships. "As a writer I have deep compassion for both generations," she says. "I'm not so interested in telling one generation that they're right and the other is wrong. Rather, I'm much more interested in seeing their impact on each other and finding common threads between them and a way back to each other."

That the play — written in 2011 and 2012 — finds itself resonating with Ferguson and other examples of racial injustice was entirely an accident, according to the playwright. She was trying to explore moments in American history, as she did in an earlier work, Detroit '67, which was set in the aftermath of the 1967 riots and won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. "I'm writing about the past and it's penetrating the present with a strange relevance that I'm not so proud of," she says. "I wanted it to be informing our context for today, but I don't want it to be mirroring today. But sometimes it still is, and that tells me more about society than about me as a writer."

"You think because she writes so well that it's a realistic work," says Sunset Baby's director, Jeffrey Hadyen. "But if you take it apart a little, it's not. Real people don't go on talking for two to three pages at a time. My challenge as a director is to make it sound realistic."

Reviewers have compared Morisseau's sensibility to that of Henrik Ibsen and August Wilson; she cites the influences of Pearl Cleage and Tennessee Williams. In her often lyrical writing, she imbues the dramas of ordinary people with a heightened social consciousness that recalls the overtly political tone of much art in the 1970s. Indeed, there are some parallels with 40 years ago that Morisseau is more than happy to see circle back around.

"In many ways, the '70s ... were definitely a heyday for black artists in the theater. There was, I think, a lot more artistic freedom, of expression of culture, and control over our artistic voice," she says, pointing particularly to the Black Arts Movement and the many new cultural institutions with minorities at the helm. "I like to think it was for a lot of other groups as well. ... I think we're upon a time of shifting that again."

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; through June 7. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2, odysseytheatre.com


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