We are two hundred years or more in the past, in the hold of a slave ship during the Middle Passage. An African man (Rashard Harrison), bound for slavery, slips his bonds and tiptoes quietly deeper into the hold. He sees a beautiful woman (Tracey Farrar), held in a tiny pen. Silently, with exquisite care and tenderness, he makes love to her. And then he walks up to the deck, stands at its edge, and in the first tendrils of dawn, he throws himself into the vast Atlantic.
Generations later, he appears again in the dreams of Dontrell (Stanley Andrew Jackson III), a nerdy superachiever about to enter his freshman year at Johns Hopkins University. “Captain’s log,” he announces crisply into his microrecorder before recounting his dream-drunk night. He, at this most unexpected time and place, has discovered his life’s purpose: to find his past and so remember it, and in remembering it, redeem it.
“Remember me,” the ghost of Hamlet’s father commands his son, an injunction as important as the more difficult one, to avenge him. Regardless of our greatness or goodness, we exist for no longer than the lifetime of the last person to remember us. Dontrell’s mission, which cannot be fully understood and cannot be declined, is to reanimate the life of this nameless good man, whose life ended with a great and desperate act, but whose line continued, to produce Dontrell.
Brothers and sisters, if there is a single show to see in this year’s Source Festival, it is this compelling and hilarious and heartbreaking drama, which is large enough to embrace an ocean and a continent and some of the worst days in human history and the quotidian events in the life of a family about to send their son to the best college in town.
That it can be done at all is a tribute to a brilliant conspiracy between playwright Nathan Alan Davis and director Mark Hairston, who know when to interrupt narrative with sound, dance, chanting, and dreamscapes, and when to return to everyday life. There’s plenty of the latter, since Dontrell, though he vaguely dreams of reaching out to his ancient ancestor, is firmly grounded in the twenty-first century. Knowing that he is being called to the ocean, he first obtains deep-sea diving equipment from his cousin, Shea (Dane Figueroa Edidi), who works at the Baltimore Aquarium.
Oh – and there’s the small problem that he doesn’t, um, actually know how to swim. So he decides to teach himself old-style – throwing himself into the deep end of a public pool – with predictable results. Erika (Kathleen Cole Burke), the lifeguard who fishes him out, soon becomes his swimming coach, and then his lover.
DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA
Source Festival at
1835 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Details and Tickets
Dontrell’s family loves him, but they have little taste for his high-mindedness or love of the abstract. His tart-tongued mother (Farrar) calls him to account on a frustratingly regular basis. So too, in a more gentle way, does his wisecracking friend Robbie (Louis E. Davis). His sister Danielle (Birgundi Angel Baker), who has an inkling of Dontrell’s passion, struggles to establish peace, however temporarily. Dad (Harrison) mostly watches TV in his bedroom retreat, but in an astonishing moment explains to Dontrell why he should fall down on his knees in gratitude because his mother is a bitch.
Although Dontrell’s motivations seem vague and fulfilling the mission seems inconceivable, there is not a single instant in this production which is not fully authentic. The most authentic is the love affair between Dontrell and Erika, a quirky woman with narrative complications of her own. On its face, it seems impossible that a couple would move from lifeguard and bad swimmer to lovers in such a brief period of time, but so outstanding is the dialogue, and so sweet and brilliant are Burke and Jackson in the roles, that the thought will not occur to you until the show is long over. When Erika, calling on her own (possible) Viking ancestry, finagles a longboat for the two of them to search out Dontrell’s ancestor, it seems natural and satisfying, instead of slightly loopy.
But Burke’s and Jackson’s are not the only swell performances in this production. The entire cast is outstanding; Harrison is particularly magnificent as the hard-edged, concrete-thinking dad who has a surprising insight into and sympathy for Dontrell’s predicament. I totally bought Davis and Baker as Dontrell’s contemporaries, and Ferrar will remind you of a dozen mothers of brilliant, exasperating kids that you already know.
I very seldom say this about a show I review, but if you love theater, and you miss this show, you will have cause to feel very bad for yourself. See it…and remember.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea by Nathan Alan Davis . Directed by Mark Hairston . Featuring Birgundi Angel Baker, Tracey Farrar, Kathleen Cole Burke, Louis E. Davis, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Rashard Harrison, and Stanley Andrew Jackson III . Set design by Deb Sivigny . Lighting design by John Alexander . Sound design by Veronica J. Lancaster . Costume design by Lauren Cucarola. Patrick Magill was the stage manager; Derek David served as rehearsal stage manager. Produced by Source Festival/CuDC . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.