There are dreams—and then there are Dreams. Small dreams spring from the random synaptic firing triggered by the stresses of the brain’s day: dreams of teeth falling out or playing the piccolo nude in front of a group of strangers. But then there are other kinds of Dreams: prophetic, true and real in the deepest sense of those words. Those subconscious sparks can light conscious fires so hot they reforge reality.
Those Dreams are how religions form, how revolutions are born, and how great plays begin. Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, a Rolling World Premiere of the National New Play Network , now playing at Theater Alliance, not only begins with such a Dream, but maintains the glorious fire and drive of the True Dream throughout. For me, this makes Dontrell the most important new play to see on DC stages right now and one of the best plays I’ve seen all season.
In the first scene of the play (or the second, if you count the beautiful body-syncing prologue), 18 year old Dontrell Jones III describes his Dream for us and “future generations” on his retro mini cassette recorder. He is on a slave ship, in the middle of the Atlantic. Among the tightly crammed bodies, he sees a man who looks like his father. That man breaks free of his confinement and makes his way to the women’s section of the hold. The man finds a particular woman, and they whisper their names to each other before they make love. Afterward, the man slips up to the deck and leaps off the side of the ship. Dontrell knows, in the way that one knows things in a dream, that his family line can be traced back directly to the child conceived in that hold and to the man who leapt from the side of that slave ship.
The story of the play is how he mines all of his limited resources to find the truth of this dream, forsaking his responsibilities and perhaps his future, much to the dismay of his family and friends. But this play’s greatness doesn’t really come from the plot, though the plot’s water-tightness and inevitability show playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ incredible skill. The characters and poetically transfixing language are the real stars. This creative team and cast, under the direction of Timothy Douglas, has all of the talent and skill (“skalent” in the terms of the play) to maximize the potential of this play.
It all starts with Justin Weaks, who plays Dontrell Jones III. Weaks may be one of the most physically and emotionally present young actors I’ve seen in a while. Breaking it down, I mean that while he executes his blocking and choreography well, he doesn’t follow it distantly, like a puppet. Instead, he finds the physical and emotional impulse behind what he is supposed to be doing at any individual moment and commits to that impulse fully. This commitment makes Dontrell feel alive and complete, greater than the text on the page and more encompassingly human. There’s never a glaze over his eyes as he thinks about what to do next nor an uncharacteristic hesitation; there is only the immediate and living now in his words and movement. And any actor can tell you that this kind of presence is one of the most difficult things to achieve in the craft, especially at such a young age. I truly hope to see him on more DC stages and soon.
But Weaks’ talent is far from the be all and end all of this cast. His best friend Robby, played magnificently by Louis E. Davis, attempts to probe the change in Dontrell for the Jones family while trying to support his friend and bring him back to the reality that Robby is so grounded in. What I love about Davis’ performance here are his brilliant choices. The character is one that we’re all familiar with – the best friend of a child in the family who becomes close as family—he’s at almost every dinner with a key to the house and an understanding of the family dynamic perhaps more intricate than the members of the family. His choices express his role: during a celebration, at the moment of highest family awkwardness, he immediately looks down at his plate, subtly shakes his head, and takes a bite of cake. Small gestures, sure, but perfect in their timing, size, and appropriateness.
Danielle and Shea, female members of the Jones’ family in Dontrell’s generation, are played quite well by Sharisse Taylor and Katherine Renee Turner respectively. Taylor as Danielle, focused on keeping the family together during Dontrell’s coming-of-age strangeness, makes a complete character out of few lines, and she very much finds the martyr-esque “I do everything for this family and get no thanks” attitude so familiar in these family situations. Older cousin Shea is more mystical, appealing to Dontrell’s own sense of mysticism, but Turner does well to contrast that with the hard but secret truths she knows about Jones family history that could bring Dontrell back to reality.
The Jones family is very much a matriarchy, and all of this pushing of Dontrell away from his Dream and toward reality is for the sake of his mother, played with an interesting flair by Danielle C. Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s choices read flat; that is, she doesn’t seem to find as much emotional variety as other actors in her character. I think this is a conscious choice though, not accidentally missing jokes or inflections. Her interpretation of Mom seems to be of a woman who expects to be followed and obeyed, who expects her words to be hung upon by everyone in the family and who feels that it is others’ duty to find her meaning. She, along with her husband, are the only characters in the play that really emanate the threat of physical danger, and Hutchinson’s choices really reflect that.
Frank Britton as Dontrell’s father has the fewest lines in the play, but, appropriately for one of the best monologists in DC, he gets a fantastic monologue that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear in auditions throughout the city this coming year. One thing that he has in this play that I’ve never seen from him before is a truly mature gravitas, a fatherliness and force that never gets too showy, because it doesn’t need to. With the few lines he has, Britton is still one of the most memorable actors in this play, and I think that shows that he is ready to take on a whole new level of acting roles.
Katie Ryan as Erika has a unique role in Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, not only because she is the blossoming love interest in this coming-of-age story, but because she is the only White character in a play that is so fundamentally about the Black experience. I have to give more credit to playwright Nathan Alan Davis here, because Erika is so well-rounded yet so honestly portrayed with an odd combination of foot-in-mouth awkwardness, sensitivity, and obsessive weirdness that avoids both tokenism and ethnic tourism. I wish that other playwrights whose plays feature a character of a different race than the rest of the cast could be as skillful as Nathan Alan Davis.
DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA
May 6 – 31
Theater Alliance at
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Details and Tickets or call 202.241.2539
Director Timothy Douglas has to be credited here as well, since he assembled this amazing cast and has obviously done an extraordinary amount of work to forge them into the tight ensemble they are. Even better, he has managed to get some of the best designers on DC stages to come together on this production. Tony Cisek’s beautifully restrained set compliments Dan Covey’s masterful lighting design while Kendra Rai’s truly intelligent costume design provides genuine surprises and connections in the subtlest of ways. That theme of subtlety is carried on by Matthew M. Nielsen’s sound design and the musicianship of Jabari Exum, who presence is constant, but as an uplifting note rather than a dominant force. Most of Dane Figueroa Edidi’s choreography doesn’t reveal itself until late in the show, but that choreography (and especially Justin Weaks’ execution of it) is worth the price of admission.
In most reviews, this part would be where I slotted in some problems I had with the play, however great or small. As a critic, I’m picky enough to find things that I dislike to moderate your expectations going into a play or to be sure to seem fair. But my complaint for this show isn’t about the play, it is about the audience. There weren’t enough people in it. For a show that creates a moving spiritual experience, that stages a Dream with exceptional grace and force, every night should be sold out.
Fortunately, this is something you can fix. So stop reading this review and buy a pair of tickets for Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea. My guarantee is that this is one Dream you won’t want to wake up from.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea by Nathan Alan Davis . Directed by Timothy Douglas . Featuring: Justin Weaks, Katie Ryan, Frank Britton, Dannielle C. Hutchinson, Sharisse Taylor, Katherine Renee Turner and Louis E. Davis . Scenic Design: Tony Cisek . Lighting Design: Dan Covey . Costume Design: Kendra Rai . Sound Design: Matthew M. Nielson . Choreography: Dane Edidi . Stage Manager: Keta Newborn . Produced by Theater Alliance Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Alan Katz.