In 'Sunset Baby,' a reunion sets the stage for rage

Plenty of fire in Dominique Morisseau's heartfelt #SunsetBaby @OdysseyTheatre_

Playwright Dominique Morisseau displays plenty of fire in “Sunset Baby,” her heartfelt but undisciplined drama now in its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

A melodramatic mélange, the play vacillates between the riveting and the random – and the result can frustrate as often as it intrigues.

The drama deals with the reunion of African American activist Kenyatta (Vincent J. Isaac) and his estranged daughter, Nina (Nadège August). A legendary figure in the early black power movement, Kenyatta is an aging lion still roaring his rage over society's inequities.

Indeed, his entire life – including his abandonment of his then-5-year-old daughter – has been defined by ideology, at the cost of family ties or personal relationships.

Nina has avoided a life of ideology, and is instead a self-protective creature of the mean streets, on her own since her mother Ashanti X, also a famous activist, died a crack addict in a New York slum.

Now Nina and her opportunistic boyfriend, Damon (Chris Gardner), make their living through drugs and robbery, hoping to amass enough cash to escape their ghettoized existence and start a new life in another country.

Nina bitterly blames Kenyatta for her mother’s slide into addiction and early death. When he comes calling, hoping to get his hands on some potentially lucrative unmailed letters that Ashanti X wrote to him while he was in prison, she excoriates him, repeatedly and at some length, for his fatherly failings.

High-decibel histrionics seem the dramatic default throughout.  Unfortunately, director Jeffrey Hayden stresses the political message rather than the dramatic medium in a somewhat splenetic staging that shortchanges the play’s essential subtexts.

Although they sometimes play to their stereotypes, August and Gardner succeed in humanizing their characters, but Isaac’s stilted portrayal is  jarring, even in this over-the-top context. One senses that there’s a quieter, more thoughtful drama agitating in this rattling potboiler, but as yet, it’s still on the simmer.

“Sunset Baby,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesday and May 27 only; 8 p.m. Thursday April 30, May 14, May 21 and June 4 only; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 7. $30-$34.99. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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