When asked to do a piece on City Theatre’s upcoming work, a play that speaks to the struggles in the black liberation movement, I am admittedly nervous. As a white suburbanite, how can I truthfully get to the heart of this piece, without letting my perspective or novice get in the way?
The answer comes in seconds, as I take my seat next to Joniece Abbott-Pratt, leading lady of City Theatre’s production of Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau. I find my way into the piece the same way the audience will: by seeing the world through Joniece’s fiercely bright eyes.
“I feel the character’s tempo, the character’s words come out of my mouth in every day life,” Pratt tells me, as we discuss where she is in her Sunset Baby process.
She plays the protagonist, Nina, who is the daughter of two political activists. Nina’s father was arrested for selling drugs when she was two, so Nina spent her childhood caring for her drug-addicted mother. As a result, she feels the longing for a father, in addition to her mother’s pain from losing a husband. Now, Nina is an adult, in a complicated relationship, and leading her own life of crime, hustling drugs and robbing passers-by. Her mother passes away approximately six months prior to the start of the play, so we meet a character under enormous stress – especially when her father is released from prison and comes knocking on her door.
“I’m learning how to take off the character. Sometimes, I don’t want to do that. Sometimes, I want to stay in it. Sometimes, things are confusing or don’t yet make sense. By staying in it, it helps you see things from a different perspective,” Pratt explains her actor’s take on this experience. She then confides, “I always feel like the roles that show up, for me, are so in sync with what I’m dealing with at the time.”
I ask her if it’s difficult for her, as it often can be for an actor, to draw that line, between yourself and the character, and she pauses. Then she says slowly, but without hesitation, “You give the character aspects of yourself that they need.”
She and her cast mates, J. Alphonse Nicholson and Keith Randolph Smith, are still discovering new realities for these characters every day. It’s clear, however, that she definitely feels connected to Nina, before they head into previews, starting this weekend, November 7th through November 12th
It’s also clear that Pratt feels at home at City Theatre. City Theatre prides itself in its ability to foster new play development and bring Pittsburgh exciting, contemporary works that appeal to diverse audiences. It should also pride itself on making its every company of actors feel welcome.
“It was a trip just walking around the buildings, and seeing the posters from different shows that they’ve done here. I hadn’t realized how many people I’ve met in New York that have been through City Theatre. I was pleasantly surprised. I felt like I was hitting a stop on the train I’m supposed to be on.”
This is Pratt’s first time working with both City Theatre and in Pittsburgh. She has nothing but warmth for the company and the thrilling journey she’s undertaken with her cast and director, Jade King Carroll. A Philadelphia native herself, Pratt explains the thrill of discovering that the Pittsburgh places, mentioned in August Wilson’s plays, are real. She also touches on the bizarre feeling you get walking around Pittsburgh’s various neighborhoods – like you’ve been there before, in a dream.
“In a way it reminds me of Berkley, but it also feels like Brooklyn… but the people… these people are real and so up front,” said Pratt. “I feel like I’m home. People here are very easy-going, welcoming, and open. And I feel like I’m from here, like I’m a Pittsburgher.”
She tells me of her past productions in regional theaters all over the country – from Berkley to Palm Beach to New Haven – where she got to “…sit at the feet of these people who have been acting longer than I’ve been alive,” she remembers, in awe and admiration.
She speaks specifically of her time with August Wilson’s work, including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Actor Theater of Louisville, Seven Guitars at No Rules Theater Company, and two productions of The Piano Lesson, one at Yale Repertory Theatre and one with the Delaware Theatre Company. In these generational plays, she had the opportunity to learn from teenage actors, middle-aged actors, and actors in their seventies. They were full of wisdoms and experiences they were always willing to share. Joniece calls them “master storytellers” and considers them more than just part of her regional theatre network, but part of her family.
While speaking about playwrights, the conversation naturally found its way to Dominique Morisseau. “One thing I love about Dominique,” Pratt begins, “is her fearlessness, and her ability to write very strong female characters; women that you don’t always get to see.”
The phrase “strong female character” is thrown around a lot, and is sometimes criticized as unnecessary terminology. What exactly do we mean when we say it? We discuss this, and how, in Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, it means that the emotional life of Nina takes center stage. The traditionally feminine – the emotional world of a character – is not written to serve someone else’s story. It is not a supporting story arc that offsets the logical main story. The leading female character does not have to embody typically masculine traits to be listened to or to drive the plot forward. Though Nina is written as “hard,” it’s because she’s sensitive; she is a character complete with flaws and painful passions she’s not afraid to share.
“Dominique writes women unapologetically,” says Pratt, and I believe her. While the play’s content confronts the macro-sized issues of drug warfare, racism, and father-daughter relationships, to center Sunset Baby’s drama on Nina’s inner world is – skillful, yes – but, ultimately, it’s nothing short of courageous.
“There are so many different ways to express pain, anger, and hurt, as a woman,” said Pratt. “And sometimes, you know, it’s not just crying in a corner. We get to see power in the way that this woman chooses to show her power.”
Opening Friday, November 13th at 8:00pm and running through until December 13th, Sunset Baby’s director, Jade King Carroll, creative team, crew, and cast – led by the vibrant Joniece Abbott-Pratt – will explore the price of freedom in a world that says love is a liability. I can’t wait to buy my ticket.