TAMPA — The lights come up and you’re practically inside Nina Shakur’s apartment. You watch as she applies makeup and teases out a platinum wig, the top of a hard shell that runs down to the toes of her thigh-high boots. It’s almost too close. She answers the door, but it’s not her controlling boyfriend this time. An older man enters, full of a sad dignity. Nina had not seen him since he was 5, when he walked out of the house.
Sunset Baby spares the audience no discomfort and offers only slight comic relief. Playwright Dominique Morisseau didn’t win a MacArthur fellowship and a Tony award by playing it safe. The joy — and there is lots of that — lies in not knowing where any of these three characters are headed or who, if any of them, to believe.
The Heather Theatre opens its season with an engrossing one-act play that is a pleasure to watch. Compared with some of Morisseau’s grander work, including Pipeline at American Stage in 2019, this one can fit in a matchbox. Which is what the Heather is, a single suite in an office park set well off W Hillsborough Avenue.
The theater is also home to Performers Studio Workshop, an acting school founded on the principles of well-known Los Angeles coach Eric Morris, who sits on the theater’s board. Many students, including all three actors in this cast and director Margaret Murphy, have film and television credits. They’re serious.
Kenyatta Shakur (the surname is a hat tip to the late rapper Tupac), Nina’s father, had his reasons for leaving his family. These are intertwined with the Black Liberation Movement he would go on to lead, but we don’t get a ton of information about that period. He has emerged to ask Nina for the letters his late wife, a crack addict, wrote while he was in prison. He clings to these remnants as a kind of inner vindication. The world sees only their street value of “love letters to a revolutionary,” one of several ways the play contrasts each character’s fragile hopes with bruising reality.
His daughter has no use for revolution or her father’s belated overtures. The wig, miniskirt and boots are just her costume, a way to get men alone just long enough for her boyfriend Damon to mug them. Kelli Vonshay brings out Nina’s hardness with a searing honesty, confronting her father repeatedly in a lengthy face-off. Darren Constantine gives a masterful performance as the mysterious Kenyatta, able to hint at massively unexpressed regret with a raised eyebrow or a lilt at the end of a sentence. The dialogue flows fiercely between them in a way that ennobles both, scraping the heart.
That leaves Damon to pursue his own dream of survival. Aris Rogers II supplies the show’s light touch, a serial mugger who thinks $10,000 will set the couple up in London. He did some of his best work without lines, concerned with his schemes and anxious that there is something he might have missed.
You’ve got two weeks left to see Sunset Baby and to experience the Heather, still Tampa’s best-kept theater secret.
IF YOU GO
Runs through Jan. 25. $25. 8313 W Hillsborough Ave., Suite 250, Tampa. Mature content, must be at least 15 years old. (813) 884-8335. heathertheatre.org.