Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Also see Eddie's recent review of The Play That Goes Wrong
Indeed, the heritage of ancestors and history reaching all the way back to the packed slave ships crossing the Middle Passage plays a big part in life-changing decisions Dontrell is about to make. In Nathan Alan Davis' Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, his journey to find himself and his roots as a young Black man takes on both epic and surreal proportions where the boundaries between dreams and reality become more and more indiscernible. Free-form dance movements surrounding Greek-like chorus responses, and appearances of ancestral spirits–all often bringing strong hints of long-ago Africa–are part of the oft-watery, dream-like world in this Pear Theatres production, now playing in repertory with a new physical adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein entitled Frankenstein: Unbound.
Before the play's beginning, Dontrell has had a recurring dream where a man on a slave ship meets and impregnates his life partner and then escapes the ship by diving into the deep waters of the Atlantic. What both haunts and excites Dontrell is that the man looks like his father. As he awakens this particular morning, he pulls out his handheld recorder to send a message to "Future Generations" (his ongoing diary seemingly inspired by his love of "Star Trek"):
"I may never rest soundly again,
And with that realization, Dontrell is on a mission to find and rescue this ancestor lost at sea ("I am going to the ocean for the missing part of my father's family tree.") Reality does not play a role in either the quest or his plan of how to pursue. He first heads to the city's aquarium to convince his cousin, Shea, to find him an extra diving suit. When she reminds him that he cannot swim, he heads immediately to a pool and jumps in, somehow believing nature will take over. As he sinks to the bottom, twenty-one-year-old Erika jumps in the save him, fulfilling a destiny we have heard the newly trained lifeguard express to her mirror that morning: "To give your breath to another is an act that, in the end, must be entirely empty of self ... So empty yourself ... today is the day."
The meeting of the two in fact seems mystically deemed by the Fates, for it leads to both fulfilling a sense of combined destiny that includes a quick and lasting romance and a seed planted in her body to become the next generation–much as occurred for the ancestor in Dontrell's dream. Erika becomes the enabler for his journey as well as a fellow traveler. The only step left for Dontrell is to seek the blessing of his family, especially his mother and father. And that is where dream and reality clash in a colossal confrontation.
To successfully pull off a production of a play that is a mixture of the everyday, mundane parts of life with the appearance of fish, spirits, and dancing waters along with a young man's non-stoppable drive to plunge into the ocean to find someone who drowned in a dream would be a challenge for any theatre company. Director Sinjin Jones and the cast of seven in this Pear production achieves that success in fits and starts. There is an unevenness of abilities among the cast to convincingly portray some characters as well as some scenes between characters, sometimes hitting the target and sometimes appearing stilted as if reading the lines for the first time. The many movement segments in which cast members roam across the mostly blank stage surrounded on four sides by audience look too often like a group in an early rehearsal where flailing arms and turning bodies have yet to be truly choreographed. However, when cast members stand behind the audience on all four sides and act as a chorus of ancestors or when they transform themselves into African or slave-ship histories, the responses of stomping feet that shake our seats, the echoes of a beating heart, or the tribal dances of old are much more impactful.
As Dontrell, Drake Pough often brings an incredible intensity of purpose seen in eyes that widen and remain motionless in their roundness as if he has been hypnotized. He is excellent as Dontrell speaks to "Future Generations," straddling the transition from boyhood to manhood–talking to his recorder in a way a younger boy might have done in play but speaking often almost poetically and philosophically as a person with much more experience in life than his eighteen years. When he meets up with his best buddy Robby (Bezachin T. Jifar) or with his cousin Shea (Brenda Miles), the bond and trust exude with full conviction in their relationships; and each provides a performance full of life and love.
It is when Dontrell meets Erika that the actors fail to convince fully in their performances. The immediate attraction and bonding demanded by the script feels too forced and shallow, especially in the portrayal of Erika by Lauren Sweet. There is more than just the natural awkwardness of a first meeting of two potential lovers. The more romantic the two become, the more it feels they are both just following scripted or directorial instructions, without their hearts fully into the relationship. That same, slight hesitation of total commitment as actors to the needed emotional level continues even through the final, climactic scenes that are set out in the middle of the Atlantic.
Much more successful are Tiffany Nwogu and JM Appleby as Dontrell's mother and father, respectively. JM Appleby's Dad is in many of his scenes a detached member of the family who would rather watch the latest soap opera alone in his den or work on word puzzles in a magazine than engage with his wife or rest of his family. But he also provides one of the most profound moments in the evening when Dontrell hears from his Dad an impassioned, raised-voice treatise on the role of women in the Black family. Using words like "lionesses," "panthers," and "mamma Kodiaks," he declares that "I want Warrior Women standin' over you," as he reminds Dontrell that "mothers are always on your guard ... when the wolves come howlin'."
And as Mom, Tiffany Nwogu embodies that kind of warrior, seeking to bring her son back to his reality through her prayers, her impassioned, tearful entreaties, and her frightening spark of anger. Giving the most notable performance of the evening, Tiffany Nwogu commands the stage each time she appears. She also demonstrates the love of Every Mother when she finally looks her determined, intractable son in the eye and reluctantly gives a tacit blessing to his plans: "I'd give your body away before I'd kill your spirit."
Louis Stone-Collonge uses three small, wooden platforms as flexible scenic devices, with the center one resembling what might be the hold of a slave ship. A painted floor with embedded waves combines with the shadowed, rippling lighting effects by Ed Hunter and the sound effects by Charlie Hoyt effectively to create both underwater and dream-like scenes. The sustained, low notes of music punctuated by light and then later resounding drumming composed by SF1 help set the proper moods of sea, history, and dreams.
In the end, Pear Theatre's Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is mildly intriguing and overall retains interest during its no-intermission ninety minutes; but what is clear is that the unique concept and poetic script by Nathan Alan Davis deserves treatment a bit more refined, artful, and consistently well-acted.
Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea runs through February 26, 2023, in repertory with Frankenstein: Unbound at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thepear.org. Please note: Masks are required to be worn by all audience members.