A unique play that explores another kind of hero’s journey

The Aurora Fox theatre is truly a historical landmark. Built in 1946, it was a popular cinema throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In 1981, the Fox burned to the ground. It wasn’t until 1985 that the community banded together to have the space rebuilt.

Since then, it has served as a hub of culture. It’s mostly known as the home of the award-winning Aurora Fox Arts Center professional theatre company, a 242-seat main auditorium and  a 72-seat black box studio space. The theatre radiates warmth, and anybody who walks through the doors can feel the care that has built the Fox. The newest theatrical production, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, could not be set in a more ideal place.

This play opens on a young man reciting his “Captains Log” into a hand-held recorder. He speaks like a high schooler pretending to be a ship captain — which is exactly who he is. Dontrell Jones III (Mykail Cooley), is a high school senior with a full ride to Johns Hopkins. He spends his days avoiding his family, spitting rhymes with his best friend, Robby (Trey McKeever), and talking to the fish at the aquarium. He spends his nights dreaming of a slave ship, watching a man with the face of his father jump from the bow.

Before Dontrell can see if he sinks or swims, he wakens.

Instead of facing the prospect of college, or spending time with his friends and family, Dontrell decides to immerse himself in his dreams. He tries to swim, fails miserably and is saved only by the lifeguard, Erica (Amalia Adiv). Erica is committed to her trade, but falls quickly to the charms of the boy reciting his rescue into his Captain’s Log. They spend the night exchanging secrets in her lonely apartment. Much like Dontrell, Erica takes herself a bit too seriously. They make for an impulsive, intense pair. They decide to work together to figure out the nature of Dontrell’s dream.

To get Dontrell back on track, his family invites him to a second, late graduation party. Their goal is to remind him of his ambitions, but the night quickly falls apart. Dontrell brings Erica; his parents quarrel: mother (Adrienne Martin-Fullwood) overworked and father (Dwayne Carrington) unemployed; and his sister cracks under the pressure of holding the family together with food and humor. When Dontrell’s cousin (Janae Burris) drops off scuba gear at the house, tensions reach a climax. Dontrell’s mother destroys the gear, breaking Dontrell’s heart, but never his spirit. Erica and Dontrell decide to flee. They get a boat and take to the ocean, ultimately trying to face Dontrell’s dream.

As Dontrell, Cooley moves about the stage with the carefree nature of a child. He brings incredible lightness to a character dealing with generations of pain. Despite that backdrop, the actor still manages to portray a lovable, goofy character. The show is full of love. It preaches starting where your roots are and loving what’s around you. The story is captivating. It is heartbreaking. It is real.

Dontrells sister, Danielle (Yasmine Emani) and friend Robby (Trey McKeever) provide a lot of the show’s humor. Emani brought her all in every scene. Whether stomping, singing or making jokes, she lights up every scene she’s in. And McKeever masterfully plays a best friend. He spits bars, wears sick glasses and drifts throughout Dontrell’s life. McKeever and Emani both had the audience cracking up; their humor that grounded this cerebral performance.

Dontrell is reckoning with his own generational trauma. As a young black man in America, his history is forged from the labor of slaves. His great grandfather was stolen from his native land and imprisoned on a slave boat. Dontrell has dreams of his ancestor sneaking between the decks to see his lover, and ultimately jumping from the bow to escape his destiny. He chooses to die in the ocean, rather than spend his life working for a land that will use his corpse as fertilizer.

Dontrell is not going to be a slave, but he can see his history becoming his future. His father passes on the shoes of his father, and they fit Dontrell. He must decide between repeating the mistakes of his ancestors, or the mistakes happening right in front of him. Full of complex metaphors and striking imagery, the show handles the reality of generational trauma in a nuanced way.

Set pieces play a big part in creating the world of this play. Crafted from fabric sheets, they create a beautiful canvas across which to paint Dontrell’s dream. Whether the sheets form a boat or hang from the ceiling, they provide the subtle fluidity the show calls for. In a beautiful moment, Dontrell jumps “into the pool,” where a large blue sheet is hoisted over his head and then laid over him. He writhes under the surface, and it is as if he is actually drowning.

While the sheets are simple, they are lit in a way that provides dimensionality. The stage is never flat. In some scenes, silhouettes are projected to loom over Dontrell. They appear as his ancestors, speaking through him and remaining ever-present throughout the show. In other scenes, the stage expands, lit up in purple and orange tones, or focuses on Dontrell in a cool blue. The sheets effect creates a fluid, dynamic set molded through creative use of lighting. It’s perfect for the story being told and set designer Brandon Phillip Case and lighting designer David Arterberry have beautifully crafted an entire world.

The sound design is also well crafted and define the core of the show’s themes. Whether breaths, ocean waves, stomping, chanting, screaming or a car radio, they ground the story. Extending beyond the boundary of the stage and into every corner of the theater. That being said, there is one point where lyrical music is used, and it feels out of place. It doesn’t blend with the intimacy of Dontrell’s world and is less impactful than the overall impressive sound palate designed by CeCe Smith.

Walking away from this show, I understood the importance of breath. It’s breathing life into the next generation and working so that you can give your children what you never had. Wanting better. This show is extremely touching, and I can’t wait to see what story this crew decides to tell next.