After prison, a St. Louis actor returns to the stage in ‘Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea'
In 2014, the path of Olajuwon Davis’ acting career in St. Louis seemed to be on an unbroken upward trajectory. But while he had managed to land notable roles on stage and screen, his life was spiraling out of control.
“I was really searching for my identity, trying to figure out who I was in the grand scheme of things, and figuring out what role that I would play,” Davis said during Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.
That search led Davis down a twisting path. He adopted the beliefs of the “sovereign citizen” movement, alienating his friends and family members by insisting he was not subject to laws or taxes. In the maelstrom of the Ferguson protests after the police killing of Michael Brown, Davis joined a local chapter of the New Black Panther Party. His beliefs grew more extreme.
“It was about searching for power, trying to search for some confidence, and, you know, a way out,” he recalled. “Eventually, that did lead me to meeting these individuals who I assumed were my friends, or allies in this struggle.”
As it turned out, they were neither. Davis later learned that two members of the New Black Panthers — his supposed allies — were informants for the FBI. The informants connected Davis to a man they said could provide a pipe bomb, though in reality both the bomb-seller and the bomb were part of the FBI’s ruse.
Davis’ arrest, coming just days before a grand jury in St. Louis County announced the decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing, landed the once-promising actor in federal prison.
“They were actors,” Davis says now, referring to the informants who built the FBI’s case against him.
"I had no intentions of committing any acts of violence," he added. "I essentially fell for the trap.”
Davis’ arrest shocked his mentors and colleagues in St. Louis’ theater community. Among them was Ron Himes, the founder of St. Louis’ Black Rep, who had directed a teenage Davis in a 2008 production of “Sarafina.”
“I couldn't believe it. It was not the Olajuwon Davis who I had known, who I knew, who I worked with,” Himes said on Thursday. “As soon as he was released, he reached out to me. And I told him that his place was still here with me, his place was still here at the Black Rep. And that when he was ready to come back, we could start working again.”
Davis was released from prison in early 2020. Today, he no longer identifies as a Black Panther or sovereign citizen but is back doing what he loves, performing on a stage. In November, Davis made his post-prison return to the stage in “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The play, which opens in St. Louis on July 6, follows a young Black man who embarks on a dreamlike journey into his family’s past.
When the show opened in Nebraska last fall, Davis played Dontrell. In St. Louis, he'll play Dontrell's father.
The roles resonate deeply with Davis.
“I, too, have had dreams,” he said. “I have been inspired and moved by my connection to my ancestors. And that shakes you up. A lot of times, it doesn't make sense to those around you. And sometimes it didn't make sense to me. But I made those decisions.”
Davis added: “But I feel like I'm back on the path that was destined for me, and it is here with the Black Rep. It is here in the arts and utilizing the gifts that have been given.”
What: Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
When: July 6-23
Where: Edison Theatre 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63105
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Miya Norfleet and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.