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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Dynamic ‘Sunset Baby’ sheds new light in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse ‘PlayWorks 2021’

Lachrisa Grandberry, clockwise from upper left, director Malkia Stampley, Chike Johnson and DiMonte Henning during a talkback for “Sunset Baby” presented for Third Avenue Playhouse. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Some plays are dynamite. It takes the right people to handle them.

That is the case with “Sunset Baby,” an explosive exploration of societal quandaries stuffed inside a family dilemma.

It took the weirdness of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic to bring the play by Dominique Morisseau into production in Wisconsin for the first time Friday night.

The actors were in three locations in the Zoom presentation as part of Third Avenue Playhouse’s online play reading series “PlayWorks 2021.”

Conversation from the talkback helped put together some pieces of the production puzzle. Malkia Stampley was asked by co-artistic director Robert Boles – the two know each other from past work – to direct a play of her choosing. Malkia Stampley had experienced “Sunset Baby” 10 or so years ago in a rough-hewn theater in New York City and remembered it as a train that can’t be stopped.

Indeed. Aboard that express train Dominique Morisseau places idealism, hardline street grit and intellect – with everything messed up by a society on a freight train headed the other way on the same track.

Malkia Stampley choose a cast of professionals with roots in Milwaukee to handle this stick of TNT.

In the story, Nina, a woman of internal strength is visited by her long-estranged father. Nina was named for Nina Simon, a singer and civil rights activist. The father has some reputation as an activist, though Nina dismisses his credibility in no uncertain terms.

The daughter and the father. (Screenshot)

“Sunset Baby” is filled with many no uncertain terms in the vernacular of flamethrowers that can be spoken only by the right people. Profanities and more give the play a whole lot of volatility. And excitement.

Nina especially strips the varnish off her father, Kenyatta, and her lover, Damon.

Nina holds Kenyatta’s feet to the coals for not being on hand for her beloved mother, who has died with him not being around. Nina is sexually attracted to the smooth-talking, well-read, better-future-minded Damon, a hustler with whom she also is a colleague. Damon says they are Bonnie and Clyde.

Kenyatta has come around inquiring of letters to him that he heard Nina’s mother had written. Apparently, the letters get to the core of his idealism, help explain his raison d’etre in his goals in the racial revolution. Money value is involved. Daughter-father negotiation is involved. Nina’s stance always is Kenyatta was an “activist robot,” and her familial interest is zero.

These are characters crowded with grist for the acting mill, and the cast delivers the power, nuances and quandaries.

Lachrisa Grandberry is especially volatile as the no-nonsense Nina, calling on a whole toolbox full of acting hammers (power) and saws (for “Dad”) and files (for honing fine points). “Tour de force” is apt.

Chike Johnson, with a voice like Mount Everest (if it could speak), captures a persona caught by conflicts of noble cause and family need/duty. Kenyatta is the structure of the play – seen at the start and elsewhere as he records himself explaining who he is to Nina and his feelings about fatherhood/parenthood as “decades and decades of fear.”

Nina and her lover. (Screenshot)

DiMonte Henning is malleable as Damon, who has an answer for everything – as defined by whatever is good for Damon to get to a better place. You know DiMonte Henning is not a Damon, a criminal, which makes the acting impressive.

The title has to do with the idyllic. As a child, Nina wished to see a sunset – and that Dad did deliver. Nina still is working toward the idyllic – Nina’s idyllic.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau works on an elevated plane in “Sunset Baby.” The play is intellect unleashed in a world of “broke glass, bullets and dope.” It’s a world where a theater audience wouldn’t normally go, which is one of the wonders of plays.

Director Malkia Stampley grabs the opportunity to translate her first awe-struck impression of the play to delivering her own take that feeds an impassioned, intelligent need to create a demanding, defiant, difficult and challenging piece of art.

***

Creative: Playwright – Dominique Morisseau; director – Malkia Stampley; technical director – Jon Ginnow

Cast (in order of appearance)

Kenyatta Shakur – Chike Johnson 

Nina – Lachrisa Grandberry 

Damon – DiMonte Henning 

Running time: 85 minutes

Info on “PlayWorks 2021” – thirdavenueplayhouse.com

Next: “Natural Shocks” by Lauren Gunderson, 7 p.m. March 19.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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