By Tristan Lejeune
Religion tells us that man was made out of earth and shall return there, but biology knows it was really the ocean.
Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea, part of the current Source Festival, is one of those plays where all of the supporting characters are to some degree confused, frustrated, or terrified by the lead’s hunt for self-actualization — and with good reason. He’s gonna get a little wet.
Dontrell Jones III — Baltimore resident, Johns Hopkins enrollee, descendent of slaves — is haunted by a dream. In his dream an ancestor, who looks “just like [his] father,” impregnates a woman aboard the ship where they are both human cargo before climbing topside and hurling himself into the Atlantic. Dontrell is driven (he might say called) to recover this lost part of his history, to find his forefather. Problem No. 1: He can’t swim. Problem No. 2: Wait, what?
Going at least as far back as the 1960s, American theatre has embraced protagonists whose goals exist where “hazy” meets “self-destructive,” and DWKTS, written by Nathan Allen Davis, is among the less-infuriating of the genre. It’s vibrant and human, but in the end I share the consternation of the characters on stage who feel Dontrell might be a solution looking for a problem. He’s got a loving family, an exciting new girlfriend, and — despite the bias of in-state proximity — he’s been accepted to one of the best schools in the country (and no one is complaining about the tuition, somehow).
And he wants to give it all up for … what? To find his ancestor’s bones and give them a proper burial? To get in touch with the spirit that never fully crossed the ocean? It’s unclear, and thus hard to root for, but at least Stanley Andrew Jackson III is likeable enough as Dontrell that we want him to find something.
Everyone on stage has charisma, in fact, which is important for a cast of seven. Props are raw and minimal (a sheet, some shoes, some rope, a cake) and the ensemble is dressed in white with seashell accessories — this is a primal story with an eye on the water. Actors are required to play things like fish in an aquarium or the water in a public swimming pool, and Source’s black-box space is often bathed in blue gels (though not every light cue was as tight as it might be).
As a visual and auditory aesthetic, director Mark Hairston’s production is a complete success — you can smell the salt — but this is the kind of show that should be 10 minutes shorter or 25 minutes longer. All the dancing and expressionistic scenes add instead of take away, but only at the expense of more intimate, dialogue-based sequences.
As sister Danielle, Birgundi Angel Baker strikes a high note of worried support, and as lover Erika, Kathleen Cole Burke finds the right pitter-patter in a talky character, but the play is all about Dontrell, Who Might Be a Little Bit Crazy.
Parents and loved ones can’t help but wring their hands when Dontrell procures first scuba gear, then swimming lessons, and then eventually a boat in his quest to find the meaning behind his dream. But then, swimming lessons are about as helpful finding bones scattered at the bottom of the ocean 200 years ago as scuba gear is at discovering the meaning of dream.
Phrases like “the Middle Passage” are never uttered in DWKTS, but there is a Kunta Kinte joke — the involuntary transport of millions of people to America looms over the whole thing. Is the message that that forced migration was such a crime against humanity that it still claims casualties generations later? Maybe, but that’s meeting the story way more than halfway. Is it that children are drawn to the fates of their forebearers, the more tragic and mysterious the better? Possibly, but that’s not spelled out in the script.
DWKTS is an evocative and touching experience, and one I do recommend, since if it’s going to sacrifice clarity, it tries to leave us with sympathy. Does it succeed? Jackson’s Dontrell is smart, but inexperienced; he furrows many a brow. That’s the problem with quests: they neglect everyone not on one. Men are more than seed-planters and soul-searchers, or at least we should be.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is at the Source as part of the Source Festival. The play runs Thursday, June 26 at 8pm and Sunday, June 29 at 1pm and 8pm. Tickets are currently available.