First Floor’s ‘Dontrell’ explores the nuances of a Modern Middle Passage

Surviving mentally and physically in the torture chamber of 2018 requires a certain toolbox of skills. Right now, I’ve taken to reading the transcript of Barack Obama’s Farewell Address, partly because it’s overdue at the library and also because I’d like to briefly return to a time where the President presented himself with dignity and spoke in a way where we didn’t have to constantly question his mental competence. When reading a transcript of the speech, you get a real sense of the historical moment shaping it. Applause and the audience chanting “Four more years!” is written into the text, and each interjection of applause tells a story. A piece of otherwise frozen text becomes a living, breathing marker of history. Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, playing now at The Den Theatre through First Floor Theatre, accomplishes a similar feat, while also taking on bigger and more vexing questions.

Director Chika Ike sets an ambitious vision for playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ words, refusing to make First Floor Theatre’s production any one static thing. It shape-shifts between different forms at lightning speed, which not only shows off Ike’s dexterity as an artist, but adds new dimensions to a script already replete with poetic imagery. Bouncing between disseminating realities of blackness with a surrealist lens similar to that on Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, and a journey down the River Styx, guided by an ensemble taking a form of a Greek chorus, marking the rhythms of Dontrell’s journey into his past, present, and future.

Dontrell Jones III (embodied with endearing earnestness by Jalen Gilbert), on the cusp of attending college, is awoken by an ancestral dream and decides it is his destiny to find that ancestor deep in the ocean, lost to the Middle Passage. Using an old-school tape recorder, Dontrell records his travails leading up to his descent, as he calls it, for “future generations.” As the dream begins to permeate itself in real life, the weight of legacy and atonement begins to weigh on Dontrell. A lot of parallels can be drawn between Dontrell and Black Panther, currently crushing it at the box office week after week. It would not even be much of a stretch to view Dontrell as an origin story (minus the murder) for Erik Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s Black Panther character who, like Dontrell, is unrelenting in his goals and is willing to self-destruct in order to see them through.

The structure of Dontrell may lend itself to a focus on the title character’s quasi hero’s quest/coming-of-age journey, but Ike focuses much of her energies on crafting the narratives of the women in Dontrell’s life, both in relation to him and apart from him. This energy is well spent, with complexities about the nature of prophecy, legacy, and ancestry getting to be explored in ways that Dontrell could not do alone. Dontrell’s mother in particular, played with searing ferocity by First Floor company member Shariba Rivers, brought to mind the pain and desperation surrounding the murder of Courtlin Arrington – an Alabama high school student gunned down at school to the tune of near silence from the media. The radio silence could come down to a lot of factors – the shooting happening just weeks after the Parkland shooting, general numbness toward these all too frequent events, or the color of Courtlin’s skin – but the lack of closure makes it feel like they were killed all over again to those who are paying attention.

Erika, Dontrell’s swim coach turned something more, circulates around a different central question of Dontrell, and one that is not as easy to pinpoint – does believing unabashedly in spirits and the fates make you crazy? Kayla Raelle Holder navigates the intricacies of such an exploration with uncompromising intensity and an open nerve nature that makes her immediately magnetic. Much of Erika’s character lives in a heightened existence where it is sometimes not easy to immediately see things from her point of view, and it shows both Ike’s and Holder’s skills that Erika’s (and the production as a whole) twists and turns between humor and drama never feels unearned. And for a play that spends a good deal of time in the ethereal plane of the Middle Passage, that is quite an achievement.

The legacy of the Middle Passage hangs over the world of Dontrell in curious ways. The set, designed by Eleanor Khan, is the first signal that we are in a world not entirely our own. Drawings reminiscent of ancient cave paintings cover the walls, and as the action unfolds there is a certain sense that these drawings are telling an ancient story, with new passages being added with every new descent into its realm. The Middle Passage did not go away as much as it took on new and more clandestine forms, and at the heart of this constant transformation is loss – the loss of lineage, loss of knowing the full truth about your history because of forces beyond your control. This is palpable throughout Dontrell, but it does not lead to a feeling of unshakable despair. The body may be annihilated, but the soul and spirit live on. In examining and uncovering the dynamics of the modern Middle Passage, this ensemble of actors experimenting in a nook of the Den Theatre pose the question: what is truly lost in a world where everything is taken from you before you have to chance to grasp it? The question is vexing, but it deserves and demands an answer.

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