Actress Mary Francis Miller creates such a ferociously powerful character as Nina in Dobama Theatre's "Sunset Baby," you'll never forget her.

In the 2012 play by Dominique Morisseau, this stellar actress creates an incredibly tough exterior as survivor Nina. But she also evokes a beautiful vulnerability both when Nina shows slivers of softening toward the men in her life and in the young woman's moments of quiet solitude.

This play has plenty of rapid-fire, profane, aggressive dialogue. But director Justin Emeka lets the work breathe beautifully, too, especially when Nina is alone practicing ballet moves. We see a grace and sophistication in this intelligent young woman that belies the down-and-out situation she lives in.   

In this story, Morisseau creates an enthralling mystery as Nina's estranged father Kenyatta (Gregory White) returns to her in search of love letters that his late wife Ashanti X wrote but never mailed to him while he was a political prisoner. Kenyatta is a former revolutionary in the Black Liberation Movement, a cause Ashanti also believed in deeply, and these letters represent Ashanti's legacy.

The deeply embittered, guarded Nina makes her father the sole scapegoat for her damaged mother and splintered family. She holds on to an anger that consumes the audience at Dobama.

White is painful to watch as the broken, desperate Kenyatta who's trying to preserve some dignity. His poetic soliloquies about fatherhood, family and his failed movement reveal to the audience what he is unable to bring himself to say to his daughter.

The script calls for specific Nina Simone songs to be played throughout the show, starting with "Feeling Good." Director Emeka adds some telling video of the singer in which Simone talks about the feeling of freedom she sometimes achieves on stage.

The video is one of the highlights amid numerous images and videos depicting everything from the Black Liberation Movement to the late rapper Tupac Shakur as a backdrop on Nina's apartment wall.

Freedom is one of the major themes of the play: All of the play's characters are trying to reach it. At surface level, everything in life is a hustle to Nina. She's trapped in poverty, anger and resentfulness but wants to get out of a life of selling drugs and robbing people with her boyfriend Damon.

Damon wants out of this life of crime too, and wants to rise above his feelings of inadequacy as a father.

The formerly incarcerated Kenyatta seeks freedom from his loneliness by trying to connect with his daughter and seeking to read the expressions of love that his late wife left for him in her letters.

Interestingly, Damon comes across as a chump who's easily manipulated in the script. But on stage, Equity actor Ananias Dixon makes him a lovable guy whose heart isn't in his gangster life. Dixon creates a genuine earnestness in Damon, who more than anything does not want to lose Nina. 

This story about a black family explores themes that go beyond race. It's an explosive tale about love, survival and freedom. The play, which has highly naturalistic overlapping dialogue, includes extremely strong language and numerous racial epithets, so it's not for the faint of heart.

"Sunset Baby" runs 100 minutes without intermission, which is specified by the playwright. The effect of being swept up in Morisseau's story is so intense, I still felt shaken an hour after the play ended.

The show runs through Sept. 30 at 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights. For tickets, which cost $29-$35, see www.dobama.org or call 216-932-3396.

 

Tribute to Debussy

The University of Akron’s Kulas Concert Series will kick off its 2018-2019 season with a keyboard tribute to Claude Debussy at 3 p.m. Sept. 30 in the School of Music’s Guzzetta Recital Hall, 157 University Ave. Guest pianists Mark Nixon and Caroline Oltmanns will join UA faculty pianists Philip Thomson, Mayumi Kikuchi and James Wilding, faculty saxophonist Todd Gaffke and faculty bass-baritone Frank Ward.

Nixon is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, University of South Africa (UNISA), the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

International Steinway Artist Oltmanns, a Fulbright Scholar, is a piano professor at Youngstown State University and holds degrees from the Staatliche fur Musikhochschule Freiburg and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Tickets are $12 or $6 for non-UA students and free for UA students. For more information, call 330-972-8301.

 

'Plath and Orion'

Cesear's Forum will present "Plath and Orion,'' two one-act plays of chance meeting between two women, Friday through Oct. 27 at Kennedy's Down Under at Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Poignant conversations are created in Landford Wilson's "The Great Nebula in Orion" and Greg Cesear's "Plath, Sexton and the Art of Confession."

The shows star Aimee Collier and Rachel Lee Kolis in "Orion" and Julia Kolibab and Mary Alice Beck in "Plath." Tickets are $18 at the door or $15 in advance. Call 216-241-6000 or see www.playhousesquare.org.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.