Saturday, May 23, 2015
Disappointing DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA @ Cleveland Public Theatre
About fifteen years ago, an African American student on a Semester at Sea around the world educational cruise jumped overboard. The ship was sailing toward the Suez Canal, with Africa on the port side. The ship turned in the Gulf of Suez, and miraculously found the college student. The young man, after arriving back, stated that he had jumped overboard because he “wanted to touch the water, that touched the land from which his forefathers were taken into slavery. He wanted to be reunited with his history.”
Whether Ethan Davis, the author of DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, was exposed to the true tale of the Semester at Sea student is unknown, but there is an eerie parallel. Dontrell Jones III, an 18-year old honor student dreams of an ancestor (his great-grandfather) who dove off a slave ship, and dedicates his life to “kiss” the sea and meet the man. The student who dove off the ship, seemed to have an analogous purpose.
There are similarities and differences. The student who jumped from the ship was a championship swimmer and kept himself afloat until help arrived. Dontrell, who began his quest by unrealistically diving into a pool, could not swim, and was saved by a lifeguard.
The student had given no prior evidence of any desire for a historical connection. Dontrell, on the other hand, spends the entire play leaving messages for “future generations” in a mini cassette recorder.
Dontrell, an honor student with a scholarship to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, puts aside his future in an attempt to find the truth of his dream. With the help of Erika, the lifeguard, who supplies a boat, Dontrell sails off in pursuit of his goal. The student was expelled from Semester at Sea and sent home minus academic credits.
Questions arise: what will a person do to satisfy his dreams, what are the consequences of pursuing a goal, and is either Dontrell or the student’s desires realistic or reasonable?
The CPT production was disappointing. It failed to develop, in a compelling manner, the winner of the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association’s new play award. The oft-poetic language often was lost due to poor projection and articulation. The blocking on the thrust stage, which found the audience on three sides of the action, was not well conceived, with much sound being lost due to poor planning of stage movements.
So much time is spent changing scenes, dragging props on and off the stage, that the momentum of the play is disrupted. And, much of the acting is on a surface level.
Young Kalim Hill gives a reasonable interpretation of Dontrell III, but lacks the depth of acting experience and training to dig into the young man and create a full character. On the other hand, Sheffia Randall Dooley fleshes out the role of Dantell’s mother, into a realistic woman. The rest of the cast stays close to the surface in their character development.
Todd Krispinski’s set, which transforms itself into a living room, aquarium swimming pool and boat, is creatively and impressively conceived.
DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA is Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2nd production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre. “Rolling World Premieres,” a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four to six different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production. Besides CPT DONTRELL is or will be staged at Skylight Theatre (LS), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis), Theatre Alliance (D.C.), and Oregon Contemporary Theatre (Eugene)
Capsule judgement: After writing this review I read the reactions of critics from other cities where DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA has been presented. It appears that Cleveland got short-changed by director Megan Sanderg-Zakian. Other reviews recount much laughter, vivid visualizations and the line interpretation that was “poetically transfixing.” These weren’t present in the local production. I wish I had seen that quality at CPT. Unfortunately, I didn’t.
DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, runs from May 21 through June 6 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.
(Side note: I was a faculty member and a psychological support staff on the Semester on Sea voyage noted.)