Thoughts on APT’s Final Winter Words Reading: Dontrell by the Sea

Alison Graves, Contributor

Watching and writing about American Players Theatre’s (APT) 2021 Winter Words play readings from my home office in Escondido, California – with actors and directors from home (the Valley) and all over the country – has been, to quote APT’s artistic director, Brenda DeVita, “an unexpected gift of the pandemic.”

For their final Winter Words performance of the season, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea (written by Nathan Alan Davis, directed by Ameenah Kaplan) the actors and director virtually spanned the country. Reading from their homes in Spring Green, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Washington DC and New York City, their performances were so strong and the writer’s storytelling was so expressive, I didn’t miss the choreography, costuming or scenery. Kaplan’s strong direction, with an exemplary cast and crew, made this language-driven, coming-of-age/heroes journey tale stand-up on its own – while making a poetic statement about what it means to be young and black in America.

Nathan Alan Davis is an award-winning playwright from Rockford, IL now based in New York. His plays include Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea and The Wind and the Breeze.

Dontrell is a funny and moving play and the title character, Dontrell Jones III (played by LA-based Lorenz Arnell) is an intelligent 18-year old in Baltimore during the final days of summer before his freshman year at Johns Hopkins University. Arnell succeeds in creating an immensely likeable character – you want him to succeed. Throughout the play, Dontrell documents his words and feelings on a small tape recorder he carries everywhere, creating an oral history for future generations that he geekily refers to as his “captain’s log.”

He’s living a stereotypical American high school dream – straight A student, top of his class, with a loving and nurturing family. It seems like things have come easily for him – everything except learning how to swim. One night Dontrell has a nightmare about an ancestor drowning in the Atlantic Ocean. This begins his heroes quest—starting with swimming lessons.

Dontrell goes to the local swimming pool and jumps right into the water, assuming that like everything else, swimming will come naturally to him. Upon nearly drowning, he is rescued by the lifeguard on duty, Erika (Rebecca Hurd). She offers to teach Dontrell how to swim and a romantic relationship blossoms. Meanwhile, Dontrell’s cousin Shea (Liz Femi), who works at the National Aquarium, has agreed to obtain a wetsuit for Dontrell. Fearing his family will think he’s delusional, Dontrell doesn’t tell anyone in his family about his plan. Shea tells Dontrell about their grandfather who also had visions and spiritual turmoil. He bought an old fishing boat to go on his own exploration but everyone just treated him as a crazy, drunk old man. At Dontrell’s graduation party his family meets his girlfriend Erika for the first time and his covert agenda is revealed. It doesn’t go swimmingly.

The outstanding cast popped off the screen and included the wonderful Gavin Lawrence as Dontrell’s hard-working, strong but largely slient dad. Edmee-Marie Fall is Dontrell’s younger sister, Danielle. She’s terrified at the prospect of being the only child left at home and knows their Mom (Kelsey Scott), likes Dontrell more than her. Danielle’s characterization of her mother making breakfast is a prime example of some of play’s funny banter. In trying to get Dontrell out of bed one morning, Danielle says about Mom, “She’s beating the shit out of those eggs. You know where she puts all her residual stress…me.” While Dontrell is the main character, his mom is the heartbeat of the play, and her righteous stress comes from a place of fear – raising a black boy into a black man—surviving the journey and stewarding future generations.

Dontrell’s best friend, Robby (Hassiem Muhammad) is not going to college and jealously pokes at Dontrell for wasting his time at such a prestigious university. Robby prefers to drive around Baltimore and creates clever rap songs when he is with Dontrell. Additional cast and crew included stage manager, Jacqueline Singleton, stage direction by Jean Egdorf, and artistic associates Evelyn Matten and Jake Penner.

Through the four readings in their Winter Words series, APT created a canvas that reflects their journey over the years, “from classical to universal theatre,” as DeVita put it, where “the plays speak to what it means to be human.”

From its earliest days, from when I lived at home and was a student at River Valley High School, APT has been such a gift in my life, as it has been for so many others. In the Winter Words readings, the gift was in experiencing beautifully read stories and considering points of view that were new to me.

After living away from Spring Green in San Diego, Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas since 1998, I’m excited about moving back to Spring Green this summer and enjoying all the new gifts and performances by APT. They’ll have a six-show summer season. Tickets for the first two plays will go on sale April 26 at and the first performance will be May 14.

The season includes:

  • An Improbable Fiction by James DeVita
  • Rough Crossing by Tom Stoppard
  • From an original play by Ferenc Molnár
  • Cymbeline by William Shakespeare Adapted by Henry Woronicz
  • The Mountain Top by Katori Hall
  • An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson Translated from Homer’s Iliad by Robert Fagles
  • A Phoenix Too Frequent by Christopher Fry

APT is taking Covid-safety precautions, which included limited capacity in both theatres, so it’s likely tickets will go fast. Events, including Play Talks, Backstage Talks, Talkbacks and Sunday Salons will all be virtual.