By Patrick Hurley
The sins of the father visited upon the son, an all too familiar storytelling trope gets a bit of a reimagining in Nathan Alan Davis’s new play Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea, produced by Lower Depth Theater Ensemble and playing now through March 29 at the Skylight Theatre. Traditional narrative devices blended with dreamlike sequences, music, and movement create a somewhat disjointed patchwork.
Following eighteen year old Dontrell Jones III (Omete Anassi), who has recently awoken from a vivid dream about his ancestors aboard a slave ship, which he interprets to be a visitation. It is essentially his call to action. Dontrell is about to embark on his hero’s journey, and the first step is always the call. Dontrell believes that in order to answer the call of his ancestors, he must embark on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The same voyage they had taken centuries before. Exactly what he expects to find is not very clear, but his determination is resolute, and so keeping with the hero’s journey, the obstacles must align that deny him his call to action.
For starters, he doesn’t know how to swim. A skill that seems necessary in order to sail the sea. So, he decides to teach himself. Luckily, lifeguard Erika (Haley McHugh) is on hand to save him from drowning. The two forge an immediate and pretty serious bond. Other obstacles include his mother (Benai Boyd) who wants to see him off to college without distractions, and his father (Marlon Sanders) who is a constant presence, but doesn’t really serve a purpose until it’s convenient. In fact, he spends most of the first half of this play with his back to the audience ignoring his family, except to yell at his wife occasionally.
Once all obstacles have been faced and overcome, Dontrell embarks on his adventure. The setup is clean, the characters are all recognizable and the narrative is solidly positioned as a contemporary bildungsroman. Then there’s the elements of music and movement, the African influence in what is essentially a chorus. All of the other characters, apart from Dontrell, appear as a chorus, and they contribute to moments in the play, like when Dontrell is flailing in the water and nearly drowns, and they also serve as scene changers, and then they are the ancestral dreamlike apparitions that Dontrell dreams about. The play tries to be experimental, but it clings too desperately to the narrative structure of a naturalist piece to ever really become something more. Which is a shame because the play comes to life most when the heavy-handed dialogue gives way to the interpretive movements and singing. In these moments there seemed to be hints of revelatory storytelling. These moments were ultimately too brief and what we’re left with is a story that the audience will always be one step ahead of. The revelations simply do not happen.
For his part, Omete Anassi infuses his Dontrell with a witty warmth, and childlike innocence that arcs into a fully realized adult. He is quite good. As is Haley McHugh. As Erika, she is able to make the character more than her limitations. She keeps her grounded and sincere, and avoids theatrical antics a lesser actress could have fallen into. Marlon Sanders has a wonderfully commanding and forceful presence as both Dontrell’s Dad and as an Ancestral figure. Benai Boyd, as Dontrell’s Mom, is likewise a force to be reckoned with. She maintains a nicely nuanced performance that in her skillful hands avoids cliché and remains sincere. Her opening vocals are exquisite, and you can’t help but crave more of that, and her, from this piece.
Director Gregory Wallace has flashes of greatness in this production. The staging of the opening, for example, sets the stage for a story that doesn’t really happen. It’s less ethereal and more kitchen sink than the first five minutes would have us believe. The fluidity from scene to scene was also highly effective. Mr. Wallace, along with lighting designer Jeff McLaughlin really do make the most of every moment that they can. The end result looks highly polished, but comes up just a little short.
Playwright Nathan Alan Davis has a few too many elements battling each other for room. Most of the characters in this play speak colloquially, that is to say that they speak in conversational current day speech. That is until a moment calls for heightened language, and then suddenly there’s moments of poetic language from the same characters. The style of the play itself is unclear. It’s not just a contemporary drama, it’s not a surrealistic or experimental landscape play, nor is it a movement piece. It’s all of these, yes, in pieces, but as a whole it never really finds its groove. And this makes it feel a bit strained, and always a bit too easy. When tackling the inner struggle of characters, playwrights have the ability to create an entire reality around that inner world, and this play stands outside the subject, rather than giving us that rare glimpse inside. This is perhaps as a means of creating an accessible piece to a larger audience, recalling familiar storytelling rather than boldly reimagining it. And even with all it does have going for it, it feels, ultimately, like an opportunity missed.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
By Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Gregory Wallace
1816 ½ North Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
February 20-March 29