Theatre Reviews
A scene at sea featuring the cast of The Black Rep's production of 'Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,' photo by Philip Hamer.

The 45th season of The Black Rep St. Louis comes to a close with “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” a journey through time and history grounded by the present. Strong performances, visually immersive projections, and costumes and choreography rooted in African culture create an eminently watchable and beautifully spun story.

Nathan Alan Davis’ poignant and evocative script uses poetry, dialogue, rhythms, dance and ritual to tell a story of loss, longing and self-discovery. Dontrell, an 18 year old about to enter college on a full scholarship, wakes with a start from a dream one morning. Inspired by his vision – a call from a great-great-great-great-great grandfather – he sets out on a journey to connect with an ancestor who drowned in the sea during the Middle Passage.

Though his family is concerned, they remain supportive and reluctantly do their best to assist Dontrell, as does his newfound girlfriend. But when, and if, Dontrell ever makes it out to the sea, will he find his ancestor there? What will he learn? Can he survive? These questions are central to the plot, if less important to the story. Dontrell’s need to connect to his ancestor forms the character’s primary motivation. We quickly learn that Dontrell’s grandfather was consumed by a similar goal.

Visual symbolism, such as when Dontrell’s father gives the young man his grandfather’s boots, is prominent in Ron Himes’ direction in ways that help reinforce and interpret the story for the audience. This choice significantly enhances our understanding, though it may not be enough for an audience member to feel completely satisfied when leaving the theater. The playwright constructs the story, and director Himes frames and guides the plot, with this purpose at the forefront, but the lessons and outcome are yours to decide after seeing the powerfully interpreted play.

Christian Kitchens is compelling and sympathetic as Dontrell. Like his family, we want to cheer him on and are invested in his success. Kitchen moves with confidence and a little swagger at times, though Himes and the actor make sure we also see Dontrell’s vulnerability and naiveté. LaKesha Glover and Olajuwon Davis provide excellent support as Dontrell’s parents, and Brannon Evans, Lucy Graff, Claire McClannan and Mehki Mitchell round out the uniformly strong and expressive cast.

Strong chemistry between Mitchell and Kitchens ensures that the spoken word scene, an isolated in-the-car rap challenge near the top of the show, doesn’t distract from the story but instead fills in and character details. Dontrell’s relationship with his cousin and sister as well as his respect for his mother, following his father’s lead, frame his new-found relationship with refreshing positivity. This trend in contemporary plays is welcome and gives the entire audience more reasons to embrace the show.

Visually and emotionally, the highlights of the show are the less traditional theatrical elements the company uses skillfully and with effective impact. Heather Beal’s choreography is rooted in African dance traditions and rituals. Margery and Peter Spack’s video projections are a hypnotically fluid recreation of the sea and water that’s practically immersive. This sensation is complimented by Emma Hoffbrauer’s scenic design, Jasmine Williams lighting design and Jackie Sharp’s sound design. Daryl Harris costume design completes the world building, creating sharp contrast between our reality and an undersea world filled with colorful, graceful creatures and the ghosts of the past, fantastically costumed in royal garb.

At these moments, when enveloped by the sea, the connection between Kitchens, the cast and the theme is almost visceral. Unfortunately, the story arc and plot, while well executed and directed, doesn’t play out with the same satisfaction. There are a number of memorable and well-acted “real time” scenes, but the threads don’t quite come together to finish the good work they start. Frankly, the audience is figuratively left at sea to determine the story's conclusion.

“Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” continuing through July 23, is a visually immersive and emotionally compelling experience that is at times stunningly beautiful and deeply evocative. The show reminds me that I still have much to learn about the Middle Passage and the scars and uncertainties that remain today, and I’m confident that a more knowledgeable audience member will understand the story more thoroughly than I. I am personally grateful and appreciative of The Black Rep’s compelling and effecting production and the curiosity to learn that it inspires. From a conceptual and emotional standpoint, the celebrated company closes their 45th season on an exceptionally high note, creating anticipation for what’s next.



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