Oregon Contemporary Theatre artistic director Craig Willis recalls hearing a reading of a new play, Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea, at a 2013 showcase for the National New Play Network (NNPN) he attended in San Diego.
“Clearly, this play inspired the most reaction that weekend,” Willis says. “You could tell that there was a special voice behind it.”
Written by Nathan Alan Davis and co-directed by Willis and Maya Thomas, Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea opens May 29 at OCT as part of the NNPN’s Rolling World Premiere program.
“The [NNPN] organization began because a group of artistic directors talked about the challenge playwrights struggle with to get a first production,” Willis explains. “World premieres have cachet, but a second or third production seem to be at the whim of the critics.”
OCT was the first theater in Oregon to join up with the NNPN and, since then, Portland’s Miracle Theatre Group, Artists Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have followed suit.
This season’s Rolling World Premiere of Dontrell includes productions in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Washington D.C., Cleveland and Eugene.
Besides featuring new work, Willis explains, this type of rolling premiere fosters a spirit of collaboration, guiding a script through the hands of different teams of directors, designers and performers.
“It’s not fair to a playwright to ask that a first production will have all the bugs worked out,” Willis says.
Multiple productions allow a playwright to refine his or her work, thereby discovering new iterations that resonate with actors and audiences alike.
“Dontrell has had a dramatic shift, from the first script,” Willis says. “In development from the first production to now, it has evolved.”
At a recent rehearsal, actor Jonathan Thompson, cast as 18-year-old Dontrell, explores images of water — a swimming pool, an aquarium and the deep ocean surrounding the hull of a slave ship. There’s a lyrical yet approachable quality to the writing of Davis, as he bounces from street vernacular to arresting moments of distilled poetry.
“Dontrell is wrestling with his own identity as a black American, who is starting to study his own genealogy,” Willis says. “He’s of mixed race, like our president, and is asking himself the questions, ‘Are you black? Are you black enough?’”
The play is set in Baltimore — a timely locale given current events — and features a cast of seven.
“The play harkens back to the choreopoem, the Greek theater’s chorus, or community storytelling,” Willis says. “The playwright is exploring the hero’s journey.”
Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea runs May 29 through June 13 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway; tickets & further info at octheatre.org or 465-1506.