Review of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea at The Black Rep

    Don’t give up on Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, the current Black Rep production, if you’re puzzled by the opening scene. Just relax and enjoy the cast’s graceful, ritualistic dancing of Heather Beal’s African-inspired choreography, the flowing gowns and elaborate hats of Daryl Harris’s costumes, the rushing ocean waves surrounding the scene thanks to Margery and Peter Spack’s projections, the lapping of those waves in Jackie Sharp’s sound design, and Jasmine’ Williams’ lights filtered through the sea. A young man not dressed like the dancers wanders among them. As they leave, he is sleeping on a small bed. When he awakes, he takes out a mini-recorder and begins with Captain Kirk authority, “Captain’s log,” as he describes “for future generations” the dream he has just had.

    And so the play moves into a world we recognize as our own, with young Dontrell Jones, III, fan of Star Trek and hip-hop, preparing to start his freshman year on a scholarship at Johns Hopkins University in his native Baltimore. But those watery dancers never quite leave him, reappearing to guide him on his hero’s quest that the dream has inspired, even taking with sweeping movements the minimal boxes that make up Emma Hoffbrauer’s scenic design, which also includes a low structure that protrudes like a pier onto the stage.

    The dream has given Dontrell a vision of an ancestor who escaped from the hold of a slave ship and leaped into the ocean rather than live enslaved, leaving his pregnant wife to complete the middle passage and continue the line that has led to Dontrell. Now Dontrell feels impelled to connect in whatever way he can with that ancestor. How other than to search the ocean, to kiss the sea to find whatever connection might be there? 

    His friend Robby doesn’t think much of the idea. His cousin Shea works in Baltimore’s

    Aquarium, and when he asks her about scuba gear she suggests he might want to learn to swim first. He goes to a pool, leaps in, and sinks to the bottom, where the lifeguard Erika rescues him. 

    He shares his quest with her. As both his dream and the “III” in his name attest to his pride in his ancestry, so too Erika takes pride in her ancestry, and the Viking warrior joins the African warrior in his quest. She teaches him to swim and agrees to go with him to kiss the sea.

    Dontrell’s mother, initially appalled that something is distracting Dontrell from preparing for his freshman year, eventually presents him with the scuba gear. And his father, little involved with the family, when they oppose him so strongly, in a quiet father-son talk encourages him to continue.

    He and Erika find a boat, apparently a row-boat, because we watch them row out of Baltimore Harbor and into the Atlantic Ocean. Now we are again going into the world of the dancers, of fantasy or wish-fulfillment or whatever it is. Wearing the scuba gear, Dontrell swims down into the ocean while Erika watches over him from the boat. And down there, the dancers, the ancestors, are waiting for him. And he greets the man who leaped into the ocean rather than be enslaved. 

    Dontrell, Who Kissed  the Sea requires, if not a suspension of disbelief, rather a further exercise of belief. Nathan Alan Davis’s script makes that easy, enjoyable, and rewarding. So does the cast at the Black Rep. This production was in large part done originally at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre in a joint project of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and The Black Rep. Ron Himes has directed both productions with fine control. Christian Kitchens makes an eager and bold Dontrell here. Claire McClannan charms as the devoted Erika. Lakesha Glover’s Mom gives the family strict order and love. Lucia Graff delights as Dontrell’s  lively sister Danelle, Brannon Evans helps him as cousin Shea, Mekhi Mitchell shares some laughs as his friend Robby, and Olajuwon Davis’s Dad supports him in a down time.

    Playwright Davis has taken risks in writing Dontril, Who Kissed the Sea, with its unreal moments, but it works for me, making them real. I like it. 

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Phillip Hamer