“Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” is an uncommonly pretty show, a tropical vision of ocean blue and foam white. This isn’t just director Timothy Douglas dressing up the new 80-minute play with his snappy staging for Theater Alliance. Nathan Alan Davis’s script is sunny and lovable, despite its inexorable pull from present-day Baltimore toward the slave trade’s notorious Middle Passage.
The gift of “Dontrell” is that it looks backward and forward while occupying a whimsically thoughtful present. Dontrell Jones III is an 18-year-old who dreams of an ancestor who dove off a slave ship. His interpretation is that he must go to sea and meet the man.
His family is rocked. Is this bright youngster walking away from his Johns Hopkins scholarship? Although he can’t swim, the optimistic Dontrell begins his quest by diving into a pool — one of Douglas’s beautiful yet simple visions in the cozy Anacostia Playhouse.
Dontrell, played with winning innocence by the wiry Justin Weaks, is saved by a lifeguard named Erika (the equally open-spirited Katie Ryan), and if they are almost unbearably cute together it’s okay because of Davis’s condensed poetic style. This is fantasy, not reality, and the frothy wordplay inspires creative designs, live percussion and even a surprising eruption of dance.
“Dontrell” finds both the playwright and Theater Alliance on a roll. Davis’s drama has already gathered honors, including a $7,500 citation from the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association new play award last month, and this production is part of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere” of several productions opening across the country. (D.C. audiences had an early look during last year’s Source Festival.) The largely non-Equity Theatre Alliance was a big winner at last month’s Helen Hayes Awards for its “Black Nativity” and “The Wonderful World of Dissocia.”
No wonder, then, that this production establishes an agreeable confidence from the moment its seven actors take the small in-the-round stage in their crisp white costumes (by Kendra Rai). Tony Cisek is credited with scenic design, and he works closely with Dan Covey’s lights and Michael Redman’s projections to create a lovely liquid quality on the stage floor. The look is uncluttered and imaginative: A few wooden benches and some actors’ bodies are enough, for instance, to conjure a ship.
Davis leaves abundant room for that kind of playfulness. In fact, you might argue that the script is under-written. Its course is firmly set toward August Wilson territory — Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” created an indelible stage evocation of the Middle Passage — yet Davis’s writing is lighthearted and youthful. Dontrell chirpily records his thoughts on a tape recorder with a “Star Trek” intro: “Captain’s log,” he reliably begins. Laughter come easily in scenes with his buddy Robby (a bouncy Louis E. Davis) and with his prickly family, and the surprising climax is substantially authored here by choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi.
Yet literal overstatement would surely smother this delicate show as it poignantly circles its questions about race, the past and how to move ahead. Douglas, an experienced Wilson director who helmed “Two Trains Running” at Round House Theatre last season and “King Hedley II” at Arena Stage this year, seems to know right where he wants to draw the line between friskiness and historic weight. Ritual is a key; Jabari Exum’s percussion and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design and original music lift things into a flexible poetic realm that’s matched by the ensemble’s solid archetypal portrayals.
This cast includes Frank Britton spouting tough wisdom as Dontrell’s dad, Sharisse Taylor as Dontrell’s plucky sister, Danielle C. Hutchinson as his intimidating mother and Katherine Renee Turner as his cousin Shea, who works at the Baltimore Aquarium and tells Dontrell, “Be your own soothsayer.” They are as light and as grave as Dontrell’s tantalizing dream.
“Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” by Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by Timothy Douglas. About 80 minutes. Through May 31 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Tickets $20-$35. Call 202-241-2539 or visit www.theatrealliance.com.