There's nothing pretty about Jodi Della Ventura's set design for Primal Forces' production of Sunset Baby at Andrews Living Arts Studio. In a Brooklyn project, the dining table is collapsible, the door has a giant padlock for a reason, and the scuffed walls have probably been spattered with their share of blood. The lighting never seems quite bright enough, lest it disturb the inevitable cockroaches.
It's not a space where one expects to hear revolutionary rhetoric and references to criminologist Steven Spitzer's Toward a Marxian Theory of Deviance. But playwright Dominique Morisseau's trenchant script thrives on a heady nexus of street language and poetic diction, on the dreams of one generation and the blighted reality of the next, on the shifting tides of black activism. Issues of trust, addiction, and parental neglect percolate too, but mostly it's about the heartbreakingly universal divide between a father and daughter that finally comes to a head over the course of the play's 90 minutes.
When we first meet the apartment's tenant, Nina (Makeba Pace), she's dressed like a hooker, complete with fuck-me heels and a garish blond wig. But she's not a prostitute: She only plays one to fleece unsuspecting johns of their cash, in tandem with her drug-dealing boyfriend Damon (Ethan Henry), a deadbeat dad with Champagne dreams. They compare themselves to Bonnie and Clyde, romantic outlaws who seem to be perennially a job away from making enough cash to escape to environs more glamorous.
The sudden reappearance of Nina's estranged father, Kenyatta (John Archie), in her life disrupts this uneasy status quo: Nina's mother, a famously damaged revolutionary whom Kenyatta abandoned decades earlier, has recently died, leaving behind a valuable cache of unsent letters, addressed to Kenyatta but willed to Nina. Kenyatta makes no bones about his desire to obtain them, which reopens filial traumas in the way so many great American dramas do.
Sunset Baby is a play right in line with the mission statement of Primal Forces, a company launched earlier this year by director Keith Garsson to explore the effect of the baby-boom counterculture on today's generation. It's a sobering, low-budget production whose three rock-solid actors spared none of the expense.
Although he's not the show's most important character, Henry turns Damon into the play's most primal force, a fast-talking, mercurial animal. He enters the play in a tornadic bluster that never winds down, seeming to pull the playwright's strings — not the other way around — in the unshackled manner Brando or Pacino have done on stage and screen; the moment in which he ransacks the apartment in a quest for Nina's letters is a wordless triumph. The show is also the best showcase yet for Pace, who convincingly renders her character's gradual self-actualization.
Though the production captures Morisseau's cerebral swirl of ideas, it could benefit from a more visceral intensity — to feel the same stimulation in the gut that it delivers in the brain — for it is only Henry who seems fully possessed by his character. More sweat and tears could go a long way.
Garsson's finest touch, working with sound designer David Hart, might be the integration of Nina Simone songs (the show's protagonist is named after the legendary singer), in between — and bleeding into — scenes. Simone's lyrics serve as a Greek chorus of criticism and reinforcement, creating a veritable fourth character whose omniscient commentary bridges generational divides — and reminds us that just around the corner is a new dawn and a new day.
Sunset Baby. Through December 21 at Andrews Living Arts, 23 NW Fifth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25. Call 866-811-4111, or visit primalforcesproductions.com.