Performing Arts

Theater review: ‘Sunset Baby’

Whitney Coulter and Christopher Piper in ‘Sunset Baby’
Whitney Coulter and Christopher Piper in ‘Sunset Baby’

FORT WORTH — Strained family ties, broken promises and hopes for a better tomorrow all get kicked around pretty good in Sunset Baby, the three-actor drama by Dominique Morisseau which opened at Jubilee Theatre last Friday.

The plot of the play, which is receiving its regional premiere in this production, deals primarily with a father and daughter, Kenyatta (William Earl Ray) and Nina (Whitney Coulter). He is a radical from the past who abandoned his family in favor of his cause. She is embittered, impoverished and reduced to selling drugs and committing other crimes in Harlem.

Nina’s partner in crime and life is Damon (Christopher Piper). He totes a gun and talks tough, but he has the same dreams for a better life as Nina.

Kenyatta has popped back into Nina’s life after a long absence in order to obtain letters written by his late wife, who was Nina’s mother. But Nina is not willing to let them go. Damon, however, has different plans for the missives, which are presented as also being of monetary value to academics researching the life of Nina’s activist mother.

This production, directed adroitly by Vickie Washington, features some extremely powerful acting. Ray is the senior member of the cast and he delivers just the sort of nuanced performance we know to expect from this accomplished actor.

His Kenyatta is oddly stiff and formal when dealing with his daughter. But Ray shows his character to be much more relaxed and conversational when speaking into a video camera — the medium he uses to store his observations about family and life that he wants to pass on to Nina.

Piper is also outstanding as Nina’s confused and desperate boyfriend. His spot-on deliveries reveal the wonderful rhythms in Morisseau’s dialogue writing.

But as good as the gentlemen are, Coulter goes them one better. She burns up the stage and then sweeps away the ashes as the angry and hurting Nina. This actress has previously done fine work at Jubilee, but she has certainly taken things up to a new level with this performance.

The show is also well staged by Washington and her crew. Rodney Dobbs’ set design is right on the money. And the video elements created by Kenyatta are handled well.

So the acting and general presentation of this production are stunningly good. But this show seems to work better as a series of compelling scenes rather than as a strong story.

Part of the problem is that Nina and Damon are the most articulate, rational and intellectually proficient armed drug dealers ever presented on a stage. Based on their vocabularies and behavior, this pair would be much more believable as graduate students than criminals.

Also, it does not make much sense that the dead mother’s letters would be worth substantial money to anyone. Yet the play hinges on the audience accepting that premise.

So the storyline, in general, just does not hang together as well as we want it to. But the acting and directing are so first-rate, and there are so many great moments sprinkled about the script, that those positives may trump any problems with the plot for many patrons.

Sunset Baby

Through June 28

Jubilee Theatre

506 Main St.

Fort Worth

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays