“Be prepared to be amazed by what’s around you.” That line, from Nathan Alan Davis’s Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, should serve as a benevolent warning to the audience entering the Skylight Theatre. This fable about a young Black man’s search for an ancestor who leapt off a slave ship as it crossed the Atlantic weaves storytelling, music, dance, and ritual into a fantastical tapestry: imaginatively conceived and written, spectacularly staged and designed, and acted with ferocious commitment, the result is thrilling.
Dontrell Jones III (Omete Anassi), is an 18-year-old Baltimorean who’s won a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins. School starts in a few weeks, and his mother can’t wait for her likable but headstrong son to be safely enrolled. But Dontrell has a dream, in which a man – his ancestor, captive on a slave ship bound for America – leaps overboard into the ocean, and though he can’t even swim, Dontrell becomes obsessed with going to sea and finding the man. As a first step, he jumps into the deep end of a local pool, and is saved from drowning by the pretty young lifeguard. They begin a romance, she provides him with the boat he’ll need to pursue his dream, and, amazingly, he succeeds.
Though the story sounds simple, the playwright has made it rich and complex, with swirling themes of poverty vs privilege, parental hopes and ambitions, the need for young people to create their own identities, and the yearning we have to understand where we came from.
The production, a collaboration between the Skylight Theatre Company and the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, reflects this richness and complexity, visually and aurally. The audience enters to the sound of muffled African drumming – mysterious, potentially ominous. The spare set is hung with white drapes, in shapes suggesting sails, possibly clouds. What look like the spokes of a huge wheel fan out in a semi-circle on the floor.
As the show begins, Dontrell sleeps. A powerful female voice sings an unfamiliar chant. She and the rest of the cast enter, arrayed in colorful costumes, and the wheel spokes become staffs with which they ritualistically beat a rhythm on the ground. There’s a drum, swirling lights, a dream told partially in pantomime, partially by Dontrell himself, speaking into a hand-held tape recorder in what he fancifully calls “Captain’s Log” entries.
As the play progresses, there are “normal” scenes – some hilariously funny – of Dontrell riding in a car with his best friend, arguing with his sister, visiting his cousin, interacting with his parents. But they alternate with scenes which take us to more magical places. The final several minutes are almost wordless, as Dontrell – in a small boat bobbing on the vast ocean – divests himself of all his possessions, dives into the water, and persuades his ancestor to come back from the deep.
Director Gregory Wallace and choreographer Ayana Cahrr have staged the play vividly, with startlingly effective physicality: the dream sequence, Dontrell’s near-drowning in the pool, and the final scene in the ocean are ingenious and inspired.
Also inspired are the contributions of the design team: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set, with pieces cleverly serving more than one purpose (who knew a picnic table could turn into a Viking longboat?!); Jeff McLaughlin’s shimmering lighting, which, together with Nicholas Santiago’s video designs, make us believe we’re on – and sometimes in – the water; Naila Aladdin Sanders’s witty costumes, which not only clothe the humans, but also bring us a remarkably realistic clown fish; and David B. Marling’s evocative sound design, which provides subtle and appropriate background accompaniment throughout.
The cast is splendid. Mr. Anassi carries the huge role of Dontrell effortlessly, moving from comedy to tragedy and back with ease and skill. The other actors all play multiple roles, but each stands out as a character intrinsic to the plot. As Dontrell’s stern but loving mother, Benai Boyd is funny and heartbreaking – and as a dream spirit, Ms. Boyd displays a singing voice to raise the roof. Marlon Sanders as Dontrell’s father – and ancestor – brings dignity and gravity to the table, but also gets belly laughs out of eating a piece of cake.
Jasmine St. Clair explodes with fierce humor as Dontrell’s feisty sister, while Yvonne Huff gives a quiet, nuanced performance as the cousin who does her best to help him realize his dream. Charles McCoy shines as Dontrell’s loyal but sometimes flabbergasted best friend. And in the pivotal role of Erika, the white lifeguard who saves Dontrell’s life – and possibly his soul – Haley McHugh is understated and sincere as a character who must overcome her own insecurities to merge with Dontrell.
The show isn’t perfect: the long scene between Dontrell and Erika could be judiciously trimmed. The hip-hop lyrics could be enunciated more clearly. And, a suggestion verging on a plea, don’t have Mr. Anassi as Dontrell “get ready for bed” and go to sleep as the audience files in. Once the actor is onstage, our attention is drawn to him, and when nothing then happens for 5, 6, or 7 minutes, we’re confused and discomfited: why isn’t the show starting? What’s wrong? Add to that the theatre management walking on, standing a foot or so from the “sleeping” character, to welcome the audience, complete with jokes about cell phones and unwrapping candy, and it’s just plain awkward.
If it’s important for us to see Dontrell asleep before the show starts, have the actor in place when the house opens. Better yet, have him enter, remove his shirt and shoes, and curl up after the obligatory announcements. It will only add 15 seconds or so, we’ll all get what’s happening, and it will be a cleaner start.
But these are quibbles. If you go to no other show this year, get yourself to the Skylight Theatre to see Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea: it’s productions such as this that make live theatre an art form to celebrate.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Written by Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Gregory Wallace
Through March 29
The Skylight Theatre
1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Tickets: 213-761-7061 or http://skylighttix.com