Smile Politely

Excuse me while I kiss the sea

While KCPA’s opening night party showed how the entire world has come to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois Theatre’s opening performance shows how our alumni can influence the world. Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is written by Nathan Alan Davis and directed by Tyrone Phillips, both Illinois Theatre alums who are making names for themselves in the larger scheme of things. The production which opens tomorrow presents a unique reunion for these two quickly-rising talents. 

Davis is a relatively new playwright, albeit a productive one, with three full-length works and a trilogy since 2012. He’s currently a New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellow, making his New York debut. Dontrell is coming off its National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere” of five theatres producing it nationwide during 2015. In his artist’s statement published on his website, Davis claims, “I am haunted by the injustices of our collective history. I write to call account and to revive the dead.” That really struck me and stuck with me as I read about this particular script.

Dontrell is a high-school graduate who has been accepted to Johns Hopkins and is nearly ready to leave when he dreams of an ancestor who managed to jump off a slave ship. The teen decides that this dream is calling him to the middle of the Atlantic to “meet” this dead relative – despite not being able to swim. He sets his resolve and heads to the local pool, determined to conquer the fabricated deep before heading out to the ocean, but has taken the first steps on a journey he will see through before final curtain.  

That description in and of itself is enough to make me curious about the play: my logic-brain is screaming all kinds of unprintable words about how little sense it makes to “go meet” your ancestor who died in the middle of the ocean. But I’ve never felt a pull toward family, or a need to uncover my roots, so it’s simultaneously intriguing. And clearly it’s a spiritual journey, one of seafaring meditation, not an actual attempt to recover a centuries-old corpse, right? …right? This is where Davis’ statement began to rankle. 

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea promises to explore the large themes of identity and family, race and expectation, within the small confines of Krannert’s black-box Studio Theatre. Personally, I like black-box spaces because they not only give you permission to—nearly demand that you—imagine the world within. Dontrell’s plot seems to suggest that a little imagination will be required, with not one but two aquatic settings. That makes it perfect for director Tyrone Phillips, who related to the Illinois Alumni Organization that it was a black-box theatre that first caught his imagination, as well. He remembers thinking, “Whatever is in this room, I want to be part of it,” and to me, that captures the allure: anything can be within, and anyone can be part.

Phillips took his degree and moved back to Chicago and founded (with help from five other Illinois alums, no less) the Definition Theatre Company (DTC). DTC has a diverse core cast and focuses on reflecting the reality of America: one in which all stories are interwoven. Their most recent production, Byhalia, Mississippi, which Phillips also directed, just closed a run at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre and earned several accolades at the Jeff Awards. Phillips himself has made a few up-and-coming lists like “Hot new faces of 2015” in the Tribune, and it is an exciting opportunity to see what he will do with this play.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, plays for three weekends beginning tomorrow, Thursday, September 29th at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices begin at $25, with discounts available, and are available online or from the ticket office between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Call 217-333-6280 or stop in. The first two weekends are accepting names for the waiting list only, but the last weekend still has seats available. See Krannert’s website for details. 

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