There has perhaps never been an artist better capable of expressing the eternal contradictions of hope and oppression than Nina Simone. From the deceptive jaunt of “Mississippi Goddamn” to the soaring spirit of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, ” Simone’s confrontations with injustice were often as emotionally unbearable for her as they were inspiring for others. Through her covers, spirituals and original songs, Simone transformed this paradox into a defining characteristic of what it meant to be black in America. Inspired by Simone, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, bell hooks and the unbroken circle of history, Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” is an exquisitely damaged and devastating play about the personal cost of revolution.
“Sunset Baby” embodies a complex legacy of self-destruction and perseverance. It is a dense, richly literate work written with lightning on the side of a mountain. Morisseau bravely captures contradictions, holding them aloft with mastery. She grapples with ownership, language, emotional reciprocity, drug dealing as social activism and the liabilities of love to revolution all within the framework of family and, in particular, the responsibilities of fatherhood.
It is difficult to wade into these issues with any kind of moral certainty. The play concentrates on the fractures between individuals and how they reflect broader schisms in the black community. Even the term “black community” poses problems: on its face, “community” implies a certain kind of mutual understanding. Aging hustler Damon (Kelvin Roston Jr.) notes the absence of honor in the youngest generation of would-be gangsters. A strong-willed man, Damon is thrown into spiritual confusion when symbols are divested of meaning, as in the case of the proliferation of sneakers hanging from telephone wires in the neighborhood where he plies his trade.
Directed by Ron OJ Parson, one of our city’s indisputable and undersung talents, and performed with edge-of-your-seat intensity by Roston Jr., Phillip Edward Van Lear and Anji White, this is the first great production of 2016. Not so much a dream deferred as an endlessly irreconcilable reality, “Sunset Baby” is as fierce and bright, warm and beautiful as its namesake. (Kevin Greene)
TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 West Wellington, timelinetheatre.com, (773)281-8463, $28-$51. Through April 10.