Friday, April 10, 2015

'Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea' answers the siren call of the sunken past

Dontrell reads a letter from his grandfather that had been hidden in a pair of boots

If we didn't hide the most crucial clues to who we are, it's possible our hold on everyday life would be more tenuous than it usually is. Plumbing the depths of identity is not for the faint of heart, "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea" seems to be telling us.

In the National New Play Network "rolling world premiere" that opened Thursday at the Phoenix Theatre, the title character can't let those clues lie dormant in dreams. They must be acted upon. His grip on the life he lives in a prickly, stressed-out family is less than firm, so he's already in the habit of addressing a featureless future on a handheld recording device.

The bright 18-year-old has won a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore. It's a big deal to his family, but to him it stands in the shadow of his need to get in touch with something deeper, looking in both directions from the present. Dontrell, played with calculated gusto and spidery industry by Eli Curry, wants to bend the real world to his quest.  If he can't know what the future holds, he can at least store electronically what he'd like it to know about him.

That aspect of Dontrell in the early part of this 90-minute one-act makes the character seem merely eccentric. Yet it's clear the ancestral tug of the haunting dream he keeps talking about grounds him in something serious and central to the African-American heritage. The past, with the ocean to the east  bearing so much painful history, can't be left alone.

Drawing on the historical sorrows of so many lives lost or maimed in the Middle Passage while the slave trade was plied between Africa and America, playwright Nathan Alan Davis has put a heavy burden of recovery on Dontrell's shoulders. He's a true naif, open to experience, ready to suffer in order to dare big. Like Tennessee Williams' Kilroy in "Camino Real," he has "a heart as big as the head of a baby." In its florid rhetoric and tortured vitalism, Davis' writing overall seems to owe a significant debt to Williams, too.

Passages of choral speaking and sound effects from the cast, plus  its near constant presence onstage,  underline Dontrell's entanglement with others. His deceased grandfather was certifiably crazy, yet remains an indispensable spur to the quest. His father, Dontrell Jr. (Ben Rose), is self-indulgent and not too keen on being someone worth looking up to. Mom (Milicent Wright) is controlling and abrasive, yet spiritually sturdy.

To balance Dontrell's oceanic thinking, younger sister Danielle (Paeton Chavis) tempers her feistiness just enough to know how to navigate the family waters.  A streetwise older friend, Robbie (Ollice Nickson), provides a counterweight to Dontrell as a household satellite with continual access. An impulsive, nearly fatal decision to teach himself to swim in order to search the deep water brings Dontrell into the life of Erika (Ann Marie Elliott), a lifeguard who enables him to extend his quest, joining him in it even as she wrestles with her own identity.

His cousin Shea (Dena Toler) is a grounded young woman, a guide at the city's aquarium. As such she is a link to Dontrell's ambitions, an upbeat character who really believes her scripted injunction to visitors: "Prepare to be amazed." Dontrell's preparation, as well as his eventual amazement, goes way beyond the norm.

The play catches itself up in identity matters that touch the heart but take a while to bear fruit. It requires the dialogue-free final scene, a technical tour de force for the Phoenix production team (with choreography in the West African idiom by Ronne Stone), to extend a hand of blessing over all the roiling conflict inside and outside the young hero. Under the direction of Bryan Fonseca, so much has been contributed by the cast's efforts up until then that you can't doubt there's plenty worth blessing.

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