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THEATER REVIEW Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-03-18

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Playwright: Nathan Alan Davis

At: First Floor Theater at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: $10-$20. Runs through: March 31

Tribal histories featuring forced migrations can exacerbate the propensity of young people to speculate on fanciful origin stories beyond those imparted by their immediate kin.

Who knows what secrets may lurk beneath the prosaic ( read: boring ) lineage promulgated by parents bent on steering adolescent imaginations toward practical considerations? Dontrell Jones III is grateful for the scholarship at Johns Hopkins University awaiting him at the end of this, his 18th summer, but when his ancestors call to him in a dream, a spiritual odyssey is inevitable.

The dream is of a slave ship bound across the Atlantic, and a lone captive identified as a "grandfather" of indeterminate generations past who dives into the sea in a desperate bid for escape—leaving behind his pregnant consort to ensure their legacy in the New World. Upon awakening, Dontrell detects increasing evidence supporting this spectral vision—his own grandsire's fear of water, his father's reluctance to permit his children swimming lessons. After suffering an inauspicious embarkation involving a humiliating rescue at the city's municipal pool, our pilgrim's journey introduces a lifeguard who also assumes a mythic aura—and, coincidentally, supplies him the marine vessel facilitating his exploration of Chesapeake Bay for signs of his patrimonial inheritance.

According to the publicity for this First Floor Theater production, Dontrell's adventures fall under the taxonomic label of "magic realism," but playwright Nathan Alan Davis' tendency to embrace the magic more than the realism often makes for intellectual dislocation. By setting the action in fantasy realms before acquainting us with our hero's earthly circumstances—specifically, a family puzzled and dismayed by his curious quest—our author provides us no baseline against which to measure the credibility of Dontrell's necrophilic obsession.

The suspense generated during the final confrontation with the ghosts of the Middle Passage is thus eroded by the nagging possibility of our story ending in hackneyed teen-suicide hand-wringing. Until then, however, the ensemble delivers scene after scene of breathtaking pageantry. Chika Ike's direction weaves a tapestry of synchronized movement, a cappella chants, orchestrated poetry, acoustical instrumentals and visual effects drawing on global sources to create a subterranean panorama of sensory illusion as fluid and mysterious as the briny ocean deep itself.


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