Metro Weekly

A Richly Rewarding “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” (Review)

Gorgeous musical moments mark the moving story of an immigrant father and gay son in "Where the Mountain Meets the Sea."


Where the Mountain Meets the Sea: Isaac Bell and Robert Cornelius - Photo: Christopher Mueller
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea: Isaac Bell and Robert Cornelius – Photo: Christopher Mueller

While awaiting a proper vehicle to showcase the leading lady talents of theater treasure Awa Sal Secka, we can enjoy, for now, the performer-playwright’s stellar work in the ensemble of Signature’s intimate musical journey Where the Mountain Meets the Sea.

In the D.C. premiere production of Jeff Augustin’s personal tale of a father and son who traverse great distances and differences trying to reconnect, Secka teams with singer-musician Rob Morrison to provide live music and score supporting the drama.

Robert Cornelius, as dad Jean, and Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell, as son Jonah, carry the narrative, taking turns telling respective sides of their family’s life story.

The account spun by Haitian immigrant Jean might be a mix of memories that happened and memories he wishes had happened, he admits. Played by Cornelius as a charmer with a million-dollar smile, Jean recounts his days in Jacmel, where he taught elementary school, and dreamed of a life in the States, with his lovely lady friend Emile at his side.

As far as his son Jonah is concerned, Jean, who left Haiti by boat to Miami in 1978, never dreamt he’d have a gay theater artist son, but that’s how things turned out. Now, Jonah’s a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics living in L.A., involved in a complicated relationship with Carl, whom he describes as a smart, dreamy, married, ginger-haired novelist with eyes of a striking blue that reminds him of the ocean in Haiti.

Jonah also laments that because of his sexuality, he and his father grew apart. His dad died without knowing him fully, or knowing about details of his life like Carl.

So, in an effort to feel closer to someone he can no longer be closer to, Jonah makes a cross-country trek back to Miami to pick up his dad’s remains and return them to Haiti. Along the way, he retraces, in reverse, the cross-country trip that his father and mother originally took to L.A. when Jonah was yet to be born.

From across the divide of time and space, father and son paint a rich picture of Jean’s immigrant experience, and Jonah’s coming-of-age as a first-generation gay Black American. Through monologues, they confess feelings they haven’t spoken, or address one another evoking the conversations they want to have but always chicken out of starting. Some conversations they’ll be too late to have.

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea: Cornelius, Rob Morrison, Awa Sal Secka, and Bell – Photo: Christopher Mueller

Staged by Timothy Douglas — who also directed Signature’s winning 2022 run of The Color Purple — the show laces Jean’s and Jonah’s monologues with songs composed by married duo The Bengsons, and performed sublimely by Secka and Morrison.

The movement between music and monologues, finessed with an assist from choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi, doesn’t feel seamless, though the ensemble pulls together beautifully for moments when the entire foursome carries a tune.

Bell, an award-winning fixture of the D.C. music scene, doesn’t get to sing enough for the tastes of those of us who enjoyed his distinctly pleasing voice in Signature’s Passing Strange. Cornelius, let’s politely say, sings the right amount as Jean.

Jean’s love for music, he explains, is what prompted his cross-country road trip. Searching for a sound that reminded him of the songs that floated across the mountains back home, he found American folk music. The Bengsons’ gorgeous acoustic tunes, sung by Secka and Morrison, with Morrison on guitar, and Secka playing percussion, indeed weave a transporting spell.

The performers’ supple harmonizing on “Everything to Me,” and tender take on bluegrass ballad “I Was Too Late,” with Secka plucking banjo, coax out all the joyful memories and missed opportunities shared by father and son.

Between songs, Jean regales us with stories of his first Thanksgiving, and his first impression of Carl, as Jonah unapologetically fucks his way across America, seeking connection in the arms of different partners. In the course of his and Jean’s parallel journeys crossing the country, they may never truly meet, but Jonah can find hope in the searching.

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea (★★★★☆) runs through July 7 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Va., with a Pride Night performance on June 28. Tickets are $40 to $99. Call 703-820-9771, or visit

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