The director describes 'Sunset Baby' as about "learning to love yourself so you can love others. ... At the end of the day, it's about family, love, and the pressures that people put on family and love."
Tony Todd leans back on a couch in a hallway outside the rehearsal rooms at TheaterWorks. He's never worked at this particular theater before, but it's a homecoming.
Todd spent most of his childhood, and the first years of his professional acting career, in Hartford. He credits a Mr. Fairchild, who taught biology at Hartford High and ran the after-school drama program — "when they still had arts in the schools," Todd quips — with turning him on to theater.
Todd began his theatrical training backstage. "My first assignment was a curtain-puller for 'The Curious Savage,'" he recalls. Then he got to play Van Helsing in a school production of "Dracula." "That made the cover of the Sunday Courant!" he recalls.
After high school, Todd spent a year at UConn, then studied at the O'Neill Center's National Theatre Institute in Waterford and the Hartman Theatre Conservatory in Stamford. He also cites Hartford's Artists Collective, Inc. as a valuable training ground.
Todd left Connecticut for a stint at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, then returned to work with small theaters around the state. He says he agonized over leaving Hartford to try his luck in New York City, but decided to go for it, and "had my Equity card within two weeks."
The actor's long list of film, TV and stage credits ranges from Broadway (Disney's "Aida") to off-Broadway ("Zooman and the Sign") to regional theater (August Wilson's "King Hedley II") to iconic horror films ("Candyman") to cartoons (the voice of a gargoyle on "What's New, Scooby-Doo?") and recurring roles on such grand-cultish TV shows as "24," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Stargate" and "The Flash."
Todd insists on doing live theater regularly between film and TV projects. He had to turn down an offer earlier this year from Hartford Stage due to his busy schedule, and found himself thinking, "I wish I was in Hartford. I wish I was in Hartford." So when TheaterWorks inquired about whether he'd like to play the aging Black Power activist Kenyatta in Dominique Morisseau's lyrical drama "Sunset Baby," "I gave up my winter in L.A. and made a deal to do this."
The play is about how Kenyatta reconnects with his estranged daughter Nina (played by Brittany Bellizeare), whose boyfriend Damon (Carlton Byrd) also figures in the drama. "I had to reread it and reread it," Todd says. "The hardest part is the ellipses and dashes." (Morisseau uses special punctuation to denote the play's special pacing and style.) "We have to be on top of our lines, be mentally active and present."
The director of "Sunset Baby," Reginald L. Douglas, is the artistic producer of City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, where his primary focus is new plays. "I've known Dominique for many years," he says of the playwright. "Her voice is so poetic, unique. She creates complex, complicated but charming characters. They're so human."
The director describes 'Sunset Baby' as about "learning to love yourself so you can love others. 'Sunset Baby' is about the truth of revolution. At the end of the day, it's about family, love, and the pressures that people put on family and love."
"SUNSET BABY" by Dominique Morisseau continues through Feb. 19 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $65, $15 for student rush seats. Jan. 18 and 25 are "Pay What You Can." 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.