A mesmerizing blend of magical realism and poetic social comment courses through "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea," Nathan Alan Davis' meta-theatrical parable about an idealistic African American teen in search of his heritage.
Brilliantly directed by Gregory Wallace, the piece begins with a West African ritual pulse, as the cast assembles on designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's austere wood-and-sails bedecked set behind the supine Dontrell Jones III (Omete Anassi, in an impressive professional debut).
This formalized tribal tableau gives way to Dontrell's sudden awakening from a particularly vivid dream. "Captain's log," he says to his tape recorder. "Future generations, whoever finds this, I hope it finds you well."
And Dontrell's vision of an ancestor who jumped ship during the middle passage leads the 18-year-old to question his scholarship to Johns Hopkins and instead seek out the mid-Atlantic source.
Neither kid sister Danielle (wryly deadpan Jasmine St. Clair) nor best friend Robby (Charles McCoy, hip and hilarious) are sure what's up with Dontrell. Cousin and confidante Shea (the adroit Yvonne Huff) thinks he'd best consider his gruffly taciturn dad (Marlon Sanders, smartly understated) and force-of-nature mom (Benai Boyd, going for it).
Enter Erika (the sensitive Haley McHugh), a white lifeguard who saves Dontrell when he jumps in the deep end of the pool for practice. What follows is slightly overstuffed and archetypal, its comic and naturalistic aspects sometimes jostling. It is also a shade too time-compressed, with everything happening in just two days, but its water imagery and undertow of racial unity and historic legacy certainly lands, with a hauntingly beautiful final passage.
Credit Wallace's fluid staging and the evocative contributions of Schwartz, Ayana Cahrr (choreography), Leon Mobley (music), Jeff McLaughlin (lighting), David B. Marling (sound) and Naila Aladdin Sanders (costumes). And then there is the sterling ensemble surrounding Anassi's appealing title character, he and McHugh wonderfully matched, their colleagues giving the multifaceted requirements their all.
Because ultimately what makes "Dontrell" soar is Davis' uniquely lyrical script, and its thematic veracity and original authorial voice floats us past fleeting new-play issues.