Encore Michigan

Review: ‘Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea’ at Open Book

Review May 30, 2024 Kent Straith

TRENTON, MI–Of the many perks that come in the benefits package known as “Being White In America,” one underrated thing is that most of us don’t think about our ancestors all that often. Some more than others, to be sure. Me? Hardly at all.

The most interesting thing I know about my ancestors is that I had a great-grandmother die of tuberculosis at age 27. The most important thing I know is that every one of them who came from elsewhere arrived on this continent voluntarily, which makes my experience altogether different than that of the the title character in Open Book Theatre’s confident and exciting production of Nathan Alan Davis’s Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea, who as this play opens, has not yet kissed the Sea, but is about to.

Dontrelle is a sweet, highly intelligent, socially awkward, spectacularly dorky Black kid who is in the summer after his high school graduation with weeks to go before entering Johns Hopkins University across town, when out of nowhere one fateful night, he has a dream of his ancestors.

Dontrell is already progressing through life assuming that it is important…that the things he says, does, and sees will be important to someone someday, and he is meticulously documenting them on a voice recorder, each new entry introduced with the word “Captain’s Log…” His dream rises from the depths of the ocean and puts him face to face with a traveler on a slave ship during the Middle Passage…a traveler who looks just like his father, and who Dontrell instinctively knows is one of the men who was kidnapped and chained to a boat so that Dontrell could attend a top ten university. Dontrell feels this man calling to him to the sea and so begins his quest to meet him. Just as soon as he takes some swimming lessons.

As the titular Dontrell, James Abbott is charismatically endearing, and plays him as if Dontrell may reside somewhere low on the autism spectrum. He has a close, loving relationship with his mother and absolutely not with his father, who is cold, distant, and often literally out of sight. It’s been a while since Abbott really, sincerely passed for an eighteen year old, but in telling this story, the cast could really be any age, and Abbott is very effective in the role.

Highlighted here is the tight, mostly positive relationship Dontrell has with his family, which includes his parents, his younger sister Danielle, his cousin Shea, and the Chucky Sullivan to his Will Hunting [Good Will Hunting], his lifelong friend Robbie. The supporting cast here is all solid, especially Dontrell’s unnamed parents (known only as Mom and Dad), played by Sheila Peck and Damon Curtis. Peck’s Mom is forceful and streetwise, mixing a genuine hope for her son with an unspoken knowledge that he is his entire family’s only hope to change their lives. As Dad, Curtis is a enigma, quiet for long stretches, building to the Big Scene at the climax, where he really shines. As little sister Danielle, it was a pleasure to see X’ydee Alexander, fresh off her turn in Detroit Rep’s Annabella In July, play Danielle with a genuine innocence, but determined to keep Dontrell in line so that Mom’s wrath doesn’t flow downhill to her. 

Generally, it doesn’t take until the fifth paragraph to get to mention a co-lead in the show, but I was thrilled to get to see Maggie Alger, who was stunning in Inspired Acting Company’s Curious Case Of The Watson Intelligence just last month. Here, she plays Erika, a young lifeguard who becomes Dontrell’s swimming coach, muse, and girlfriend all in a 24 hour period. As Erika, Alger is more childlike and innocent than nearly any twenty one year old I have ever known, and plays the role with almost an alien quality, as if Erika is really too good and too pure to be concerned with the everyday drudgery of the mortals of Baltimore. It’s hard to tell if this role is canonically white because it’s never explicitly spoken of, but from what I am able to tell, it has been played almost exclusively by white actresses, which adds an unspoken dimension to Dontrell and Erika’s relationship.

(Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea is playing at Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Rd. in Trenton, MI now through June 9th. Tickets are available at www.openbooktheatrecompany.net or by calling the OBTC box office at 734-288-7753.)

Week of 6/17/2024

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