An African-American teenager in search of his roots finds them deep under the Atlantic Ocean in Nathan Alan Davis’s Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea, now getting an exquisitely staged and performed World Premiere production by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depths Theatre Ensemble.
The desire to investigate one’s family tree is reflected on a daily basis in websites like Ancestry.com and Geneology.com, but what if your forbears were African slaves? Would that not rule out any likelihood of discovering even a trace of the generations who came before those of your grandparents’ grandparents?
This is the dilemma faced by 18-year-old Dontrell Jones III (Omete Anassi), who keeps a daily audio “Captain’s Log” in which he records his hopes and (quite literally) his dreams “for future generations” to discover.
Dontrell’s most recent dream is a heady one indeed, the nighttime vision of “a captive African, name unknown, one among a mass of tight-packed bodies swaying with the tide of the Atlantic in the womb-like darkness of a slaver’s vessel. He has my father’s face.” An encounter with one of the female captives soon has the African man and his fellow slave “intertwin[ing] as best they can. They find each other’s rhythm. Her fields cultivate themselves, and a little seed is nourished there. They lie together. Man, woman and child in the darkness and the stench of the belly of the ship, floating on the freshness of the new moon sea. Before sunrise, the man rises. He climbs through a small hatchway to the deck. He stands tall on the wall of the ship. He springs into the deep. As I rush to ship’s edge to give chase, the cool air blows my eyes awake.”
If I quote so liberally from Dontrell’s dream, it is not merely to give you an idea of the lyrical style that alternates with street slang and more everyday speech in Davis’s script, but also to suggest the impact that Dontrell’s dream has on him.
In fact, so struck is he by this late-night revelation that the Johns Hopkins-bound high school senior (on a full scholarship no less) soon finds himself obsessed with connecting with that long-ago ancestor who escaped from his bondage by jumping into the ocean, no matter that the teenager can’t swim a stroke let alone sail a boat let alone have any hope of somehow locating an ancestor vanished generations ago at the bottom of the deep blue sea.
Still, before long Dontrell has headed over to the local public pool, jumped in, and nearly drowned but for a fast-acting lifeguard with whom he is immediately smitten. (It doesn’t hurt that the lifeguard—Haley McHugh as Erica—is as pretty as can be, nor that she informs the teen with a Ken-doll physique, “You have the body of a swimmer.” She knows how to win a would-be freestyler’s heart.)
In short order, Dontrell has found himself a swim instructor—and a new girlfriend—and before long the dark-skinned boy and blonde, blue-eyed girl are revealing deep, dark secrets to each other … and Dontrell has invited Erica over to meet the family we’ve already gotten to know: taciturn Dad Dontrell, Jr. (Marlon Sanders), protective Mom Sophia (Benai Boyd), bubbly 17-year-old sister Danielle (Jasmine St.Clair), advice-offering cousin Shea (Yvonne Huff), and hip-hopping bestie (and honorary family member) Robby (Charles McCoy).
Coming-of-age stories have their own special allure, and Dontrell’s coming of age is different enough from those we’ve seen before to be of interest purely for this reason. Davis’s writing style can veer towards the pretentious at times, but the characters he has created are real, and a number of sequences—one involving Mom’s favorite soap, the other Dontrell’s birthday party—are particular delights.
Performances are all around extraordinary, from Anassi’s “a star is born” debut as Dontrell to superb adult support from Boyd, Huff, and Sanders, to sensational younger turns from St.Clair and recent college grads McCoy (CSUF) and McHugh (UCLA). In fact, there’s not a weak link in the entire cast.
Still, what makes Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea most worth a visit to Los Feliz’s Skylight Theatre is director Gregory Wallace’s supremely imaginative staging, aided by choreographer Ayana Cahrr, who together with their stellar cast fully realize playwright Davis’ vision of cast-as-chorus, both propelling and commenting on the action in the most visually imaginative of ways, with Leon Mobley’s original music providing a mood-enhancing running soundtrack.
Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set works in tandem with audience imaginations to turn boxes and planks into objects as distinct as a dock, a dining-room table, a bed, and a life-sized sailboat, with Nicholas Santiago’s video design creating images of ocean waves and star-filled skies.
Jeff McLaughlin’s lighting is as gorgeous as lighting designs get and David B. Marling’s multi-layered sound design is pretty darned stunning as well.
As for Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes, there’s probably no one in L.A. who can better evoke both contemporary America and classic African motifs better than Sanders.
As for Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea’s grand finale, some will absolutely love it. Others will hate it. I find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, it defies whatever credibility Dontrell’s story may have inspired up to that point. At the same time, some suspension of disbelief allows one to ooh and aah at the sheer magic of the play’s final moments.
Dylan Southard is dramaturg. Casting is by Michael Donovan and Associates. Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager.
Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea is produced by Gary Grossman and Gregg T. Daniel. Rachel Berney Needleman is associate producer.
It’s hard to imagine a better companion piece to Skylight/Lower Depth’s recent Bulrusher than Bulrusher’s fellow 18-year-old Dontrell. Not only are smile-alikes Bianca Lemaire and Omete Anassi young actors with bright futures ahead of them, the characters they play will likely stick with you long after the lights have gone back up.
I loved Bulrusher without reservations. Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea I love slightly less, but it is beautifully acted, gorgeous to look at, and a play you’ll be talking about on the drive home.
The Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, Los Angeles.
March 14, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger