BWW Reviews: DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA Artfully Balances Poetry and Practicality

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea beautifully balances a heightened sense of wonder and allegory with humor and earthy practicality. Theater Alliance's production is a winning combination of Nathan Alan Davis' compelling script, beautiful design elements, and an expert cast giving us appealing and convincing characters which renders theatrical storytelling at its best.

Eighteen-year-old Dontrell Jones III has a promising future ahead of him with a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins and classes to begin in a scant 21 days. That's when he is driven to answer the call of an ancestor who reaches out to him through a vivid dream. A captive African packed tight in an ancient trade ship has his father's face. In his dream, Dontrell sees the ancestor plunge to the sea; Dontrell is compelled to venture to the Atlantic to reach this forbearer lost in the Middle Passage. But there's a problem: Dontrell does not swim, which certainly hampers his quest to dive to the depths to connect with his past.

Dontrell earnestly records a taped "Captain's Log" of his progress for future generations. Dontrell's belief in his pursuit sends him to the local pool where he confidently dives into the pool ... and sinks. Lifeguard Erika, who has trained for this personal mission to save a life, is there to intercede. The two realize it is their destiny to combine their skills and knowledge to reach back to this troubled ancestor ... which is great, except Dontrell's mother is about to lose it with her fearful recognition that the men in the family tend to sabotage themselves and barely three weeks remain until her son is safely launched to a promising future.

Davis' award-winning script adeptly shifts between the mystical quest of Dontrell to amass what he needs to touch his past, and the common fears and frustrations of life in 2015 to secure a solid future. Dontrell is balanced between his mother's fierce commitment to get him to college and Erika's faith that he must go to the sea to settle his family's past.

Justin Weeks as Dontrell is the heart of the play. Weeks is warm, funny and real. He never loses the charm of this young "Everyday Guy" even as he expertly leads his audience through the poetry and enchantment of Dontrell's dream-compelled logic to reconnect with his ancestry.

Dontrell's budding relationship with Erika is a delight to explore. Katie Ryan as the earnest lifeguard with an abiding belief in Dontrell's need to reach his past is a great match to Weeks' Dontrell. But ready to snatch her son back to reality is mom Sophia Jones, portrayed by Dannielle C. Hutchinson. For all of us who just weeks ago viewed the viral video of the Baltimore mom who yanks her son back from joining the rioting crowds, we feel an immediate connection as Hutchinson channels that same visceral energy and need to protect her young son in that same town.

It is Dontrell's paternal line that reaches back to the sea. Yet it would seem that his father, Dontrell Jones Jr., is rarely in the present. Closed off in the bedroom, shut behind the door, fixated on television, this Dontrell (portrayed by Frank Britton) generally hangs back. Yet we find that dad has observed far more than one would think, and he knows who has been there for his son and where the troubles lie in this family tree. This scene of father-son engagement is a strong turning point for Britton.

The rest of the cast who anchor Dontrell to present-day Baltimore are wonderfully engaging. Louis E. Davis adds light and life in the stand-out role of life-long family friend Robby. Sharisse Taylor is younger sister Danielle who works hard to deflect her mom's stress and keep the family at peace. Cousin Shea Jones (Katherine Renee Turner) is troubled by the family's past and unsure of whether to help Dontrell.

Director Timothy Douglas (who was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for Insurrection: Holding History at Theater Alliance and for Two Trains Running at Roundhouse) helps us navigate these contrasting worlds with ease. We commit to the importance of Dontrell's quest while we realize the heavy stakes if this mission is misguided. Douglas seamlessly knits a very engaging and human cast with inspired design elements to tell this poignant tale.

Anacostia Playhouse's flexible black box theatre is seated on all four sides. Each minimal design element is carefully curated to move us from a family living room to a swimming pool, from city streets to the ocean's depths. Michael Redman's clever projections on the stage floor are memorable and effective. Theatre scenes where characters drive and talk are generally terribly awkward to stage and to watch, but Redman's projections of Baltimore streets amplified the fun and camaraderie in an unforgettable early scene between buddies Dontrell and Robby. Dan Covey's warm lighting draws us in. Tony Cisek, who has collaborated previously with director Timothy Douglas, uses a few flexible pieces to great effect - particularly in creating a delightfully ingenious swimming pool. Helen Hayes winner Kendra Rai costumes the show in creamy white punctuated by a few other dark clothing pieces that set us in contemporary Baltimore.

Jabari Exum's live percussion announces from the start that attention must be paid. The drums and percussive breath help signpost the transitions as Dontrell focuses on the past or present. Dane Figueroa Edidi's choreography exacts so much power and energy it is hard to believe it is just a cast of seven on the stage. The dance and movement beautifully bridges modern day Baltimore and centuries-ago Africa. Matthew M. Neieson provides original music and sound design that skillfully supports the unfolding story.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is a rolling world premiere supported by the National New Play Network. NNPN, which earned special recognition at the 2015 Helen Hayes Awards, supports and coordinates productions of new plays at a minimum of three theatres across the country within a 12-month window. This allows playwrights to see their work interpreted by different artists in different communities and helps promote an "afterlife" for a strong script since too often a promising work languishes after a stand-alone splashy premiere. Theater Alliance's Dontrell, in the wake of the Baltimore riots, in this month of Mothers' Day and new graduates launched to uncertain futures, is so resonant here and now that it is hard to picture the work speaking so personally to any other community - but it has, earning raves already in Los Angeles and Indianapolis as part of its rolling premiere; it will open at the Cleveland Public Theatre and the Oregon Contemporary Theatre this month. DC audiences might remember an earlier workshop at the 2014 Source Theatre Festival. This has been a banner year for DC audiences to experience such rolling world premieres - Colossal by Andrew Hinderaker was produced earlier this year by Olney Theatre Center, Chad Beckim's Lights Rise on Grace appeared last month at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, even Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons which appeared last summer at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown (WV) continues to roll with a premiere next month in California.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is an assured, purposeful and wonderful work. Though the script is likely to have numerous future productions, Theater Alliance's interpretation - with its appealing cast and innovative design - is fleeting and should not be missed.

Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is produced by Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE through May 31 (Thursday - Saturday at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm). For tickets, please visit the theatre's website here.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography. Top: Justin Weeks as Dontrel with ensemble. Center: Weeks and Katie Ryan as Erika. Bottom: Weeks with Frank Britton as father Dontrell Jones, Jr.

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From This Author Pamela Roberts