Diving for Our Roots: “Dontrell” at the Skylight

Almost 40 years ago, a retired Coast Guard officer ignited America’s awareness of our black citizens’ history with a novel called Roots.
In one man’s search for his ancestors, millions found “family” — a sense of where we came from, what we came through, and how we fit in the world.

This month, a small theatre in Los Feliz lights up a mythic vision of America’s search for its African family — a play called Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.  This tale of a youth seeking his lost forebear, like an ancient legend of a knight’s quest, offers a model for any of us when we look for our past, our present, our place.

Marlon Sanders, Charles McCoy (rear), Omete Anassi

Marlon Sanders, Charles McCoy (rear), Omete Anassi. (photo: Ed Krieger)

Dontrell is no hero. He’s a lively, smart kid with a scholarship to Johns Hopkins. Then comes a dream — he sees his grandfather’s grandfather, in the hold of a slave ship, slipping past guards to make love to his wife one last time, then leaping into the sea.  Dontrell knows what he must do: find that grandfather.

It’s a crazy idea. His mother, his sister, his best bud all want him to stay, to live the life they’ve imagined. Only his cousin understands.  Sort of.  And Erika, the free-spirited lifeguard he meets when leaps into a local pool, hoping to trigger the instinct to swim.

At an explosive family party, Dontrell learns his father’s father had the same dream.  This helps win his family’s support, and he’s off.  With Erika (who’s with child). On a raft down the Chesapeake.  A black Huck Finn, married to a pregnant white Jim, heading east.

Here, the play shifts from drama to dance, moving to a denouement you’ll need a ticket to see.  Suffice to say that in shifting, the play acknowledges that for all its serio-comic realism, we’re in a myth here — and have been from the start, sailing a misty sea of archetypes.  (Playwright Nathan Alan Davis won’t face the wrath of jealous academic historians, the way Alex Haley did.)

In its latter part, the play also maintains the delicate balance it’s held between a light comic tone and the heavy issues lurking beneath the surface.  Davis — and director Gregory Wallace and the actors — never throw down a race card, but never let us kid ourselves that we’re anywhere but in black America.

Speaking of actors.  Omete Anassi gracefully wins us into Dontrell’s world from the (tricky) opening, and keeps us there.  And Charles McCoy, as his pal Robby, creates an irresistible streetwise wingman. But the antagonists bring the real surprises:  Benai Boyd’s fierce- hearted, wild-mouthed Mom and Marlon Sanders’ patriarchal poser Dad are wickedly satiric portraits, yet they gradually let us (and Dontrell) see behind the familiar faces.  Haley McHugh also keeps us wondering what wrinkle the gamine Erika will reveal next.

Dontrell‘s physical production is lovely, wringing a world from simple elements: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s draped scrims, orange-crate boxes and planks (which ascend from utility to fantasy at a single stroke in the raft), Nicholas Santiago’s evocative projections, and Jeff McLaughlin’s clear, emphatic lighting. Naila Aladdin Sanders’ spare costumes deftly suggest three varied realities — urban America, rural Africa, and mythic Atlantea — the latter also invoked by Ayana Cahrr’s calm, sure choreography.

Recently, I chided some of LA’s larger theatres for their “expense of spirit” and resources on productions that are neither necessary nor adventurous [see “Geriatric Showcase,” below].

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is a world premiere — underwritten by six theatres around the US, who will produce it this year through the National New Play Network.  The “rolling premiere” starts in LA, thanks to two local troupes, the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and Skylight Theatre Company.  It’s worth noting that this multi-city rollout will likely cost less than one show’s run at the Mark Taper.

What’s more important is that Dontrell — like Roots, or Fornés’ What of the Night?, or Hwang’s Golden Child — is not only about a perilous quest, it is one.  It’s part of our ongoing effort, in this this nation of immigrants, indentured servants and slaves, to find our way to our origins and meaning.  And it stretches how we use story to do that.

This is the kind of work theatre should be doing. The Skylight and Lower Depth companies (and playwright Davis) deserve our thanks and support for doing it, and doing it so well.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, by Nathan Alan Davis, directed by Gregory Wallace.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave.

Fridays at 8:30 pm, Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm, through March 29th.

Tickets: <http://skylighttix.com> or (213) 761-7061




neighborhood, two theatre companies are joining to bring the world a young playwright’s vision

Origin story

Grail legends – the wounded Fisher King – the young knight’s quest
to heal him

1 in every 10 Americans is a descendant of slaves brought across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.