The best theater works often are so transporting that you feel like you’ve traveled somewhere in a fever dream. Such is the case with director Lou Bellamy’s masterful production of “Sunset Baby,” the bracing Dominique Morisseau drama that opened Thursday at Penumbra Theatre.
Powerfully acted by James Craven, Ronnel Taylor and Jasmine Hughes, “Baby” takes us into a low-end apartment where a tough woman, her estranged father and her boyfriend tangle over their respective needs.
Beyond that spare physical setting, the show also inhabits the contested cultural space where the legacy of the old-school civil rights movement comes up against the radical disruptions of Black Lives Matter. What do young activists owe to the elders whose work is unfinished? And which legacies should be honored and preserved?
“Sunset Baby” also embeds critiques of capitalism and student loan debt, but layers those issues without being didactic. This is a show with guns, grit and a keen sense of danger. And in its rough poetry, “Baby” illustrates the devastating personal cost of progress.
The one-act is set in motion when former Black Power activist Kenyatta Shakur (Craven) arrives at the apartment of his daughter, Nina (Hughes), whom he hasn’t seen for years. He is seeking letters left by Nina’s mother, who died a crack addict. She wrote them while he was imprisoned for robbing an armored truck in the name of revolution.
Nina got DNA and a strong will from her parents, but not much else. Left to fend for herself in the streets of New York, she now has hooked up with gunman Damon for a dangerous hustle: She pretends to be a prostitute, and the two of them rob would-be johns.
Hughes, a Mississippi native who recently relocated to the Twin Cities to build her acting career, totally subsumes herself in Nina, a volcanic figure who watches the Travel Channel and dreams of escape. The character is as rough as an uncut diamond. Un-self-conscious and forceful, Hughes shows us both her toughness and the glimmers of hope that sustain her. From her fingering of her gun to counting the cash that she hopes will be her way out, this is a performance to long remember.
Kudos also goes to Taylor, a Chicago-based actor making his Twin Cities debut. His Damon is a sly hustler who’s always thinking three steps ahead. Taylor shows us not just the bravado and menace he uses to survive the streets, but also his wits.
Craven’s Kenyatta is a hardened man who’s loath to express feelings. He would rather pay money than apologize, and Craven depicts him with a seething quiet.
The theme of sunset — of a new generation asserting itself on its own terms even as the elders wane — also plays out in the casting. While Craven is a stalwart of Penumbra, it is newcomers Hughes and Taylor who make this “Baby” a must-see.