I’ve been thinking about Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea from the moment I left the theatre, and my mind hasn’t really slowed down. Here’s the takeaway: rarely have I encountered a work that explores so many issues this well and this intelligently. Dontrell doesn’t just employ the theme of quests, but teaches us how to reflect on the place of quests and rituals in our own lives – all while being tears-in-your-eyes hilarious.
Written by Nathan Alan Davis, Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea bears some positive comparisons to 36 Views (played in the same space by Constellation Theatre Company). Both plays are intelligent without feeling like the playwright is showing off; both plays maintain their pure entertainment value even when the technique and intent is clearest; both plays examine, dissect, and reframe a set of tropes and genres while also deftly employing them. Ritual, meaning, history, family, culture, and personal growth all fall under Davis’s lens. The action of the play, along with Davis’s deft command of both language and dramatic focus, teach the audience to be active interpreters. By the end of the play, we nod knowingly when Dontrell uses his tape recorder to formalize a message to his family; we gasp in foreboding when a simple family ritual is disrupted.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea is the story of young Dontrell Jones III (Stanley Andrew Jackson III). Dontrell’s life is thrown into disarray when he has a powerful, vivid dream about an ancestor who leapt into the sea from a slaveship on the Middle Passage. From that moment, Dontrell’s life is redefined as a quest to rescue and redeem the man who shares the face of his father. A straight-A student with a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, Jackson’s Dontrell has all the bravado of a rising star and the uncertainty of a young man who is no longer sure of the path he finds himself on. His charisma and his chemistry with the rest of the cast are largely what make the show work so well.
For the most part, Dontrell’s family wants him to stick to the straight and narrow. It’s in this resistance that we start to see the show’s reliance on rituals and traditions develop. His working mother (Tracey Farrar) wants the family’s care of Dontrell to pay off, and for him to avoid the self-sabotage that so regularly occurs in the men of the family. His sister Danielle (Birgundi Angel Baker) wants things to go smoothly so her parents don’t take their stress out on her. His father (Rashard Harrison) just wants to be left alone to relax with his television. Cousin Shea (Dane Figueroa Edidi) and best friend Robbie (Louis E. Davis) have the most objective views from outside the immediate family, and both are torn between maintaining the safe status quo and supporting Dontrell. As the family interacts, important words and gestures are set off by sharp drumbeats (provided by Director Mark Hairston, who also narrates). Everyday gestures become stylized, their importance to both Dontrell’s quest and daily family life sharply highlighted. Hairston has led his actors through two impressive balancing acts. First, the cast deftly navigates the between a prosaic, character-driven home life and a truly ensemble-based magical realism that serves as the background to Dontrell’s quest. Second, each actor has to both serve as a supporting character in Dontrell’s story and have a story in their own right. One of the beautiful things about the script is that it gives the actors the space to show that their characters have individual personalities and trajectories.
Erika (Kathleen Cole Burke), Dontrell’s lifeguard, swim instructor, and lover, is a special case. Burke brings a weird intensity to the role that sometimes feels less like she’s, well, acting and more like than living her way through the performance. Erika has her own quirks and oddities, her own strange family history, her own rules and rituals, her own character arc that begins before Dontrell meets her and continues on past the play’s conclusion. She’s also the only white character in the piece. Dontrell is less concerned with race relations than it is with culture and history and identity, but Erika’s status as an outsider still provides a useful contrast. She becomes a guest in the Jones house, where even Robbie has earned a place as a family member. Their rituals are not her rituals – it’s hilariously awkward when Dontrell’s mother asks Erika to pray with her – but she understands their power and importance. It’s the same for the audience. This isn’t our family, but we understand its functioning. This isn’t our story, but we understand its importance to the characters who participate in it.
The play has a very few awkward transitions; the long final scene feels oddly placed after a previous climax. These are incredibly minor quibbles. Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea is extremely funny, deeply touching, and at times, almost overwhelmingly dense in meaning. I want to write an article or a book about the play rather than a review, picking through the words and images one line at a time. But instead, I’ll simply tell you that you need to see the play for yourself. Go early: there are only a limited number of performances, and you may want to see it twice.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
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The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Elizabeth Archer on Her Play: ‘Old Gray Devil.’
The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Molly Hagan on Her Play: ‘The Wild Ones’
The Playwright’s Playground: SOURCE Festival 2014 – Interview with Playwright Marine Gassier on Her Play: ‘The Reluctant Genie of Niamey