Family legacy is a biggie for some clans, especially when their history has been as tortured as it has been for African-Americans. The result of this can be seen in most cities and towns in America, where some young black men clearly have a hard time connecting to the more inspiring stories of their forebears.
That is not the problem for the title character in Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, an interesting and evocative play by Nathan Davis. Dontrell Jones III is a high-achieving young man on the brink of going to Johns Hopkins University on a full ride. But he has become entranced by the dream-story of his ancestor who jumped to his death off a slave ship. And he wants to pursue that dream, so he can experience and understand it as viscerally as possible.
This production by CPT offers stunning images thanks to Todd Krispinsky’s scenic design, featuring weathered planks and a Transformer-like set change, and luxurious, pulsing lighting design by Benjamin Gantose. And the seven-person cast, under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, is consistently superior, crafting distinct characters from Davis’ words.
As Dontrell prepares for his sojourn into the briny deep, he asks his cousin Shea (a pitch-perfect Laprise Johnson) to find him some scuba gear. Then he decides to teach himself how to swim by throwing himself into the deep end of a nearby pool. Fortunately, he’s rescued by a white lifeguard, Erika, who has family issues of her own. We learn about these in a scene that feels a bit forced, a “trust game” that she and Dontrell play before they get busy under the stars.
Back at home, the Jones family and one longtime buddy (Robby, played by an amusing Johnathan L. Jackson) are at various stages of confusion regarding Dontrell’s plans. His sister Danielle (Shayla Gordon) is snarky but loving, while his mom Sophia is stupefied and worried. The dad, Dontrell Jr., is mostly occupied watching TV, but he participates enough in the family discussions to give Dontrell plenty to think about.
As the parents, Sheffia Randall Dooley and Joseph Primes hit all the right notes, with Dooley getting all up in her son’s face about his crazy notions and Primes bellowing like a wounded lion from his den. His speech defending his wife for her protective nature towards their son gets a maximum “5-goose bump” rating.
As Erika, Rachel Lee Kolis does well with a part that feels underwritten and a bit rushed in its overly-efficient reveals of her past. Kalim Hill is exceptionally affecting as Dontrell, capturing the innocent desire of this young man to connect with his past. But due to some inconsistent enunciation and hurried passages, a few of his lines disappear into the ether.
For all the trappings of a new age theater—minimal set pieces, interesting aural design with actors providing many sound effects, fluid movement and even dance—this is for the most part a traditional “kitchen sink” play. The domestic situation is one any of us can relate to, especially when Dooley and Primes go at each other in a heated argument.
Towards the end, when Erika helps make Dontrell’s dream come true and the stage transforms, it’s a magical moment. Too bad that glow is dulled somewhat by some repetitive actions and aimless dialogue before the glorious, uplifting conclusion.
Indeed there are still some wrinkles to be worked out in this show, which is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere—the play is being produced in roughly the same time frame in multiple cities by different local theater companies. It’s an exciting way to foster the growth of emerging playwrights, and Dontrell is a play well worth your time.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Through June 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.