Among the childhood photos she’s saved on her computer, Dominique Morisseau cherishes one in particular. Taken by her father, the picture shows her two-year-old self looking at a sunset, and the file name she chose for it is sweetly to-the-point: SunsetBaby.
Sunset Baby is also the name of her new play about a fraught father/daughter relationship, playing at New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company Nov. 6.–Dec. 8. But Morisseau is quick to point out that the play is not primarily autobiographical: It’s about a former black revolutionary, Kenyatta Shakur, reconnecting after years in prison with his daughter, Nina, who’s involved in the Brooklyn drug trade. Though she says her own father “shared a lot of activist ideas with me growing up,” he worked not as a revolutionary but as a computer systems analyst.
The play’s subject was instead inspired by late rapper Tupac Shakur, Morisseau explains recently, while on a break from rehearsals—she’s also an actress—for Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. “He was so brilliant and also so destructive, and he was a child of revolutionaries.”
However, there is one link to her real-life father, who owned a video camera as far back as the 1970s and used to record himself talking to the camera. “He was basically video-blogging before video-blogging existed!” she says. In Sunset Baby, Kenyatta does the same.
Sunset Baby premiered last fall at London’s Gate Theatre, with a British director, and British actors playing New York characters. Morisseau was concerned about this cultural gap, but the Gate didn’t have the budget to transport and house her for the whole rehearsal period. So Morisseau raised the money through an Indiegogo campaign.
“I became an important resource in rehearsals,” says Morisseau. She found out, for instance, that English actors’ default “New York” sound and attitude felt more Jewish or Italian than African-American. But the process was a two-way street. “The cast did a lot of research about American history and about my play, and I was learning about myself through them.”
The characters in Sunset Baby, she adds, “are all on the precipice of something else. The play isn’t about where they are today—it’s about where they could be tomorrow.” It’s as much about the sunset, in other words, as the sunrise.