Young Associate Kwame Owusu reflects on researching Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau as part of Gate Generations, a digital series inspired by 40 years of the Gate.
When I was searching for plays to explore for the ‘Gate Generations’ project, I was immediately struck by Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, which was produced at the Gate Theatre in 2012, directed by Charlotte Westenra. The play centres around Nina, the daughter of two former Black revolutionaries, who is living in the Bronx, New York. Her mother, Ashanti X, has passed away, and her father, a former political prisoner, has returned looking for unsent letters that Nina has inherited that were meant to go to him. These letters ignite a series of fraught conflicts between the characters, as old wounds are opened, and relationships implode.
Sunset Baby’s radical politics, vivid characters and crumbling relationships soar off the page. Morisseau packs the lives, conflicts, hopes, fears, tensions and passions of Nina, Damon and Kenyatta into eighty-six urgent pages, and as the play progresses, we delve deeper into ideas of Black revolutionary politics, fractured families, class consciousness, legacies, and gentrification.
It asks: What do we sacrifice in order to struggle for what we believe in? How might these decisions carve deep fractures in our personal relationships? Morisseau’s play takes these big themes and questions and renders them into a human, vulnerable, intimate mould – heartbreakingly showing us the way in which the personal bleeds into political, through a topic rarely performed on the British stage.
For over forty years, the Gate has brought bold, eclectic, trailblazing international work to Notting Hill, and Sunset Baby was no exception. What I love about the Gate is that they truly believe that the global is local, and the local is global. The interconnections between our myriad histories, legacies, and identities sit at the heart of what makes us who we are, and Notting Hill is an incredible example of that – being home to countless diasporic communities, whose political histories, stories and culture make the area what it is today. It would be easy to look at Sunset Baby as just in response to the Black Power movement in the United States. But that would ignore the crucial fact that Notting Hill and the surrounding area was at the centre of the British Black Power movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. The Gate is inextricably connected to its local community, and by staging this play at a key site of Black British radicalism, audiences were encouraged to consider the themes, questions and ideas not as isolated to a nation across the Atlantic, but urgently and painfully relevant much closer to home.
Eleven months after Sunset Baby premiered at the Gate, the Black Lives Matter movement began to take form in the United States after the murder of Trayvon Martin. In 2020, as we know, Black Lives Matter protests swept across the globe after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and others. Now, whether its trending or not, Black lives have always mattered, do matter, will always matter. I believe that art has a massive role to play in asserting and amplifying this inarguable fact. It is vital to tell Black stories about Black lives, because it is through art that we explore what it means to be human. How we resist, how we love, how we hope, how we dream, how we live, how we struggle. As we get closer and closer to the widespread reopening of theatre, Black stories must be a central thread of the programming tapestry of 2021 and beyond. Plays like Sunset Baby are so important, but they are also just one part of the puzzle. They must sit alongside stories about Black joy, Black domesticity, Black sexuality, Black community, Black trans identity, Black womanhood, Black working class life, and everything else in-between. The future is bright, and the only limit is our imagination.
I’m proud to celebrate forty years of the Gate leading the way in placing the global at the heart of our cultural conversation. Many bold, radical decades more are not only a certainty, but a necessity.