Review: Overwhelming Beauty in 'Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea'

The title of Nathan Alan Davis’s 2014 play “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” suggests its poetry, and the current production in Kalamazoo at Western Michigan University, in collaboration with Face Off Theatre Company, fully brings to fruition the promise of this gorgeous and uniquely African-American story as an embodied lyric poem.

Dontrell is a graduating high school student in present-day Baltimore who is so haunted by a dream, he’s slacking off on his day-to-day responsibilities and even considering giving up his scholarship to Johns Hopkins. The audience, too, is enchanted by this powerful dream that drives this two-hour production with its reverberations, and we are utterly drawn into Dontrell’s quest, guided by ancestors’ spirits.

The dream: a man who looks very much like Dontrell’s father jumps ship during the middle passage after having laid with a lover, planting a seed that Dontrell knows, unquestioningly, is an ancestor, a root in his family tree.

Dontrell makes a record of the dream and his search. “Captain’s log,” he speaks into a mini-cassette recorder. “Future generations, whoever finds this, I hope it finds you well.”

The play spans two days and generations at once, with the present quite literally repeating the past in a dream-like way. The excellent actors who play Dontrell’s family double as ancestors who dance, sing, stomp, crouch, and surround Dontrell, West African spirit guides who empower and embolden him on his path.

In the present, they create characters, a family dynamic, and potent emotions so natural with scenes so well timed, it feels as if they’re performing high-level improvisation. The stakes are incredibly high for the parents who fear for their son’s safety and future and the sister (Arise Rock), cousin (Aniya Zeigler), and best friend so close he’s family (Donovan B. Wade) who also have a vested interest in Dontrell’s future and how his choices affect them.

One climactic scene in which Dontrell is pushed to slander his mother (Aniya Thompson) leads to one of the finest written and delivered monologues from his dad (Delanti Hall) about the strength, courage, and protection that underlies that misogynistic slur he used. It’s pure poetry.

Kemar Williams’s Dontrell is naive and wise, dreamy and driven, and he captures the wonder and mysticism as well as the terrific frustration of his quest with bursts of energy as well as quiet humility. His performance is equally physical, spiritual, and emotional, and like the character he plays, he’s inextricable from the ensemble that supports him. Including his love interest and fate Erika (Kiara Durbin), the lifeguard who very well may be the sea itself with whom he repeats the past.

They’re wonderfully complex, magnificently-drawn characters. It’s a powerful play beautifully produced with Director Marissa Harrington exquisitely commandeering this ship. Like a carefully-crafted poem, every choice is deliberate and crucial to the piece’s overall success.

Hannah Flones’ lights, Dave Nofsinger’s sets, and Mary Narusis’ sound put us in (and on) the sea and sky as well in a car, a bedroom, a dining room; and Julia Kosanovich’s costumes effectively create both a mystical and historical past as well as characters in the present. African drums (Nate Waller) and dance (Heather Mitchell) help build this show’s heart and soul as well as deepen the profound sensory experience beyond the overwhelming visual beauty on stage.

Overwhelming beauty is ultimately what’s at work in this immersive, provocative production of “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” on every level. Symbols and metaphors abound; the boundaries between the past, present and future as well as those between dreams and reality are utterly permeable; and language, music, and dance interplay like breath itself.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Face Off Theatre @ WMU Theatre
Jan. 27-Feb. 5