The American theater world is suffering from “premiere-itis,” says Colin Hovde, artistic director of Washington’s Theater Alliance.
Too often, he says, a new play is given a premiere in one city and then never heard from again. The playwright has no opportunity to apply what was learned from the first production, and playgoers in other cities can’t see the show for themselves. Theaters are so focused on the marketing possibilities of presenting a “world premiere,” Hovde says, that they neglect what’s best for writers and audiences.
“It’s a crisis for playwrights, because a script isn’t really solid until it’s had several productions,” Hovde says. “You learn so much from the design and presentation of a play, especially if you get to see it with different designers, directors and actors. You get to see what works and what doesn’t, and after that you have a script in solid shape that you can present to a publisher.”
To combat this epidemic, the Washington-based National New Play Network provides extra funding for a play if at least three regional theaters commit to staging it within a 12-month period and call their productions “rolling world premieres.” Hovde’s Theater Alliance is a network member, and this month, the third of five theaters will continue the rolling world premiere of Nathan Alan Davis’s “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.”
“I understand why theaters want to claim credit for presenting a script to the world,” Hovde says. “Being able to tell your subscribers that you’re presenting a world premiere is a real coup. In this program, we can all claim to be part of a ‘rolling world premiere,’ and it becomes something larger than a five-week run in our city. It becomes part of a national dialogue.”
“Dontrell” opened at Los Angeles’s Skylight Theatre in February and at Indianapolis’s Phoenix Theatre in April. Theater Alliance is producing the play with an entirely different director, cast and design team as well as a slightly different script, as Davis has been rewriting it according to what he has learned at each stop. The ending has changed and lines have been added and subtracted — and sometimes added back again.
“Until you see the play fully produced, there’s only so much you can understand about the script,” Davis, 35, says by phone from New York, where he attends Juilliard’s American Playwrights Program. “What things do I need to emphasize, and what do I need to pull back on? What do I need to put into the script, and what do I leave open for interpretation? You can feel an audience’s attention, when they’re into it and when they’re not. You find out things you can never learn on your own.”
“Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” is a verse play about Dontrell Jones III, an African American kid in Baltimore who has just graduated from high school and is about to go to Johns Hopkins University on scholarship. But one morning Dontrell wakes up from a vivid dream in which he met an ancestor who dove off a slave ship into the Atlantic Ocean. The teenager becomes convinced that he has to travel to the bottom of the sea to find him. His mother is none too happy when he comes home with a scuba suit.
It’s this unlikely mix of poetic myth-making and funny family squabbles that makes “Dontrell” such an unusual play. And Davis’s decision to write it in verse gives the dialogue a musicality that renders the play both fable and comedy. Though Davis admits to being inspired by Shakespeare, August Wilson and hip-hop, he resists the suggestion that any of those influences are deliberately echoed in his verse dialogue.
“The verse is definitely there,” he acknowledges, “and the actors tap into it. But I’m not sure the audience will recognize that, because the verse is based on actual human speech. When I was writing the dream scenes, I leaned more toward verse, but I broke it up with the realistic family stuff. I definitely wanted to go back and forth. To me, most plays have both — the ordinary behavior we can relate to, but also the grand ideas from the mystical dimension. If you get stuck in one or the other, you’re missing something about the human experience.”
When Dontrell is talking to his ancestor or his girlfriend and swim instructor, Erika, or into the tape recorder where he keeps his “captain’s log,” he is at his most poetic. When he’s bantering with his best friend, Robby, his cousin Shea or his sister Danielle, however, he speaks in the urban slang of playful insult. The two elements are united by the heightened language of verse.
“We don’t have to adhere to a mathematical rhythm,” says director Timothy Douglas. “But it does force me and the actors to consider language more than we would in a more typical play. It forces us to consider the characters and relationships more deeply. If I open up a script and it’s in verse, I know this is not going to be a kitchen-sink drama. It makes me sit up and pay attention, and I hope it will do the same for the audience.”
Douglas says Davis is “an exciting talent,” especially for someone so early in his career, and Hovde calls the play “a very American story by a writer who’s going to have a long career in the theater.”
And thanks to the National New Play Network, prospects for “Dontrell” are bright, too. After its run in Washington, the play will be staged at the Cleveland Public Theatre and the Oregon Contemporary Theatre.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Theater Alliance at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. 202-241-2539. www.theateralliance.com.
Dates: Through May 31.