KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Magic, mystery and a painful history lesson—audiences will embark on an epic journey in Western Michigan University Theatre's upcoming production of "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea." A collaboration with Face Off Theatre Company, the show follows a young man determined to uncover the truth about an ancestor lost during the Middle Passage after being forced into enslavement.
"We're telling this really important story of an African American young man who's trying to discover his roots and what that means. And telling it in a poetic way and in a musical way, in a magical way, is something that we have not gotten a chance to do yet as a company, so I'm really, really excited," says Marissa Harrington, B.F.A.'13, director and Face Off Theatre Company co-founder.
Kemar Williams, a second-year music theatre performance student from Lansing, stars as Dontrell Jones, an 18 year old haunted by visions who journeys into the ocean to meet his ancestor's spirit.
"I really think this story is about purpose and feeling something deep inside, knowing in your gut that there is something that you're supposed to be doing and following that—following it unapologetically, with fear and all the emotions that come with life, and just taking those things and doing it—even when you don't feel like you can," Williams says.
The play strikes a personal chord with Harrington, who has also struggled to learn about her own roots.
"Because of the history of Africans who were brought to this country, for many of us and our families, our identities were ripped away intentionally. … Families who are able to trace back hundreds of years and talk about relatives then or stories, that is such a blessing to me. I don't have that luxury and neither do a lot of African Americans," she says.
"I'm hoping that when people walk away from this show, they are realizing the importance of identity and legacy and, once you learn about who you are and where you come from, how to take that and forge a new legacy instead of being held prisoner."
Williams also sees parallels between himself and his character, understanding Dontrell's need to connect with his past in order to "redeem history's wrongs."
"I'm 19. I wasn't alive when things like segregation were happening or enslavement. But even now, looking back, I just feel so helpless. We're still rebuilding the country and trying to get away from the consequences of all those things that have been institutionalized … but there's still a feeling of helplessness," he says. "That's what drives me. The people who looked like me who came before me weren't able to do (this work). So if not me, who?"
That feeling is echoed in the mission of Face Off Theatre Company, which Harrington founded with a group of other Western alumni focused on supporting artists of color and creating work that "explores the complexity and richness of the Black experience and encourages cross-cultural dialogue." The timing of this production is also intentional; the company begins its season every year during Black History Month.
"We're forging ahead and paving the way for more diverse theatre in Kalamazoo," Harrington says.
Having built a successful business that bolsters the local art scene and builds on her Western education, she's paving the way for other Broncos, too.
"Because of our training, because of what we learned, our artistry that we developed in undergrad, it gave us the knowledge and the courage to be able to start a theatre company," she says. "Now collaborating as that company with the institution we all graduated from is definitely a full-circle moment—very surreal. I love it, and it's a blessing for the students to be able to see that you can come full circle like that, too."
"Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea" runs Jan. 27, 28 and Feb. 2-4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Williams Theatre inside the Gilmore Theatre Complex on Western's campus. There will also be a 2 p.m. show on Sunday, Feb. 5.
Visit the show's webpage for tickets and more information about the production.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.