KNOCK ME A KISSby Charles Smith
Directed by Tre Garrett
Assistant Director – George Donaldson III
Stage Manager – Ashley Oliver
Set Design – Michael Pettigrew
Lighting Design – Nikki DeShea Smith
Sound Design – David Lanza
Costume Design – Barbara O’Donoghue
W. E. B. Du Bois – Dennis Raveneau
Nina Du Bois – Barbara Woods
Yolande Du Bois – Whitney Coulter
Countee Cullen – Christopher Piper
Jimmy Lunsford – Oris Phillips Jr.
Lenora – Thelma Mitchell
Reviewed Performance: 5/25/2013
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What didn’t change was how people treated each other. They appreciated knowledge but didn’t respect life. That played out centuries later in America as an extinction of Native American tribes, oppression of the rights of women, use of child labor, and slavery. The real damage in oppressions like slavery isn’t the systematic killing of people and destruction of families, but rather a depression of independent thought in a race of people. It was an enforced Dark Ages.
In the 1920s, another Renaissance took place in Harlem.
Intellectuals rose to describe the way people felt, beyond public protests, about prejudice and unfair treatment, though slavery ended decades earlier. Artists pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable with a new music called jazz.
Paintings and poetry expressed the hidden feelings of a race that had learned to be invisible. Great historical figures emerged with ideas of freedom and dominance over their decisions. W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Alain Locke and others opened a path for black people to think as independent agents of their own affairs. No longer willing to wait for equality by edict, they created a proud black culture and found the strength to reclaim their humanity.
Among the Harlem artists was Countee Cullen, a poet who set the intellectual beat for Harlem. His fame was large. His writing freed many who didn’t grasp the intellectual approach of Du Bois. But there was a dark side to Cullen that came out in 1928 when he married Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande.
Knock Me a Kiss at Jubilee Theatre explores this story by Charles Smith, current playwright of many other successful plays like Free Man of Color, Puddn’head Wilson, Sister Carrie, and Jelly Belly. He frequently explores historical events to address race, identity and political issues.
The marriage of Countee and Yolande was quite the affair, celebrated by 1,000 people and well-wishers of society’s elite. Such a marriage between the family of intellectual and artistic giants could move African struggle to be heard and respected forward in giant steps.
But in the end, arranged marriages of convenience and political aims seldom turn out to be happy for a bride and groom and this was true of the Cullens.
There were others in the lives of the bride and groom. Yolande had a highly passionate, though as*xual, relationship with Jimmy Lunsford, one of the Harlem music innovators, a relationship that was roaring towards marriage when it was cut off by Countee. Countee also had his own private relationship with his long-time friend, Harold Jackman, educated, well-connected and “the most beautiful man in Harlem.” He was at the forefront of the gay community in Harlem. This relationship removed the passion from the new marriage.
Tre Garrett directed an outstanding team of designers and cast of actors to show the power of this script. His setting, designed by Michael Pettigrew, was a one-unit piece showing the Du Bois’ office. We saw action happening inside and outside the office in the street. The elaborate set showed the accoutrements of a famous, wealthy intellectual giant. Coloring, set decorations, props and all visuals screamed 1920s.
Nikki DeShea Smith lit the room and actors well, but also included little touches of lighting effects such as the tree shadows on the floor in the street and a subtle set of shadows on the great man’s desk. Is this a subtle hint at the complexity in this man? David Lanza created a soundtrack from 1920s music which emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. Both his preshow and intermission music and the music played on a small 1920s radio in the office were right out of the era and helped us know where we were.
Costuming by Barbara O’Donoghue was outstanding! Actors were dressed in the finest examples of the beautiful, ornate dress of 1928, sheer for the ladies, including flapper dresses that defined the Roaring Twenties and double-breasted and formal wear for the men. The colors of the dresses seemed to be a moving painting against the landscape of the brightly colored office. The ornate accessories and jewelry shouted wealth at every turn.
Garrett was able to take a cast from different backgrounds, talents and experiences and meld them together into a tight unit that got deeply into the story telling. Each actor embraced their role fully. There was no moment when an actor strayed from the common story line – each was in the moment, a tribute to Garrett’s directing skills.
The script is wordy. The lines are intellectual wordplay about the upper-class of Harlem society. Yet they’re also poetry and actors had to get their whole bodies and souls into the lines. They did. Each oozed their lines so that we not only heard but felt them. They played with sounds of words, insinuating sultry rhythms and deep meaning into each. It was like seeing a Shakespeare done well, when actors play with the words like toys. This cast made their words a visceral experience that I just loved hearing.
W.E.B. Du Bois was played by Dennis Raveneau. With his tall lanky body and slightly grey hair, he was easily believable as the man who wrote “The Soul of Black Folk.” His booming baritone resounded as an authoritative man who controlled the space the moment he appeared. It was clear by the way Raveneau held his frame and spoke in pronouncements like a preacher that Du Bois had a larger goal in mind for his political struggle, and also for his daughter.
Yolande Du Bois, played by Whitney Coulter, was the doting daughter who worshipped her father to a fault. Coulter created a character both strong in some moments, naïve in others and wistful about her “duty” to marry to contribute to her father’s political cause.
Yolande did want to marry, but only in style. She liked her station.
Her passionate suitor, Jimmy Lunsford, was poor and couldn’t give her the rich life she expected to continue. Countee Cullen had a pedigree and money but couldn’t give her the passion she needed. And so she was caught.
Coulter played this struggle, assaulted on one side by passion while being pushed to further the cause of black people by Cullen and her father. Yolande had to be strong, naïve and obedient at the same time, a great acting challenge Coulter handled well. Coulter also had to play the straight man for the jokes of other characters. She set them up and let them sling their arrows.
Christopher Piper played Countee Cullen. Cullen was famous for his talent but was human because of his indecision. He too was caught in the middle, between his mentor, the great and powerful W.E.B. Du Bois, whom he idolized and needed, and the convenience of marrying for a cause when he wanted to be with his friend, Harold Jackman.
Piper convincingly walked this fine line between Countee’s strength as a politically active artist and being “like the son” Du Bois lost in its infancy. Piper explored Cullen’s multiple levels and turned him into a complex, interesting character to watch. As was true historically, Cullen never indicated his own preferences, other than to travel more often with Jackman.
Nina Du Bois, wife of the great W.E.B, was embraced by Barbara Woods as a minor character with a big part. Her opposition to her daughter’s carousing with Lunsford set up a continuing conflict with Yolande. Woods played the nuances of passionless, dutiful wife and then transitioned as she revealed her story about losing her son and fearing losing her daughter. A few of the really tender moments were hidden a bit because Woods faced upstage. There were many special moments but Woods gave one of the real highlights of this show as she described the role of a wife and her “duties” in bed to a shocked daughter. This was hilarious!
Jimmy Lunsford, played by Oris Phillips Jr., was the band leader who wanted Yolande. Lunceford (correct historical spelling) eventually played The Cotton Club and reached parity with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Count Basie. Glenn Miller called Lunceford’s band “better” than those more famous bands. But while he was courting Yolande, he was poor. He was a predator. He knew what he wanted and didn’t shrink from showing it.
This was the character Phillips created and it provided the strongest visceral reactions from the audience. Phillips’ Jimmy was easy to despise, but later he became a man to admired and respected. Phillips provided a visceral connection to the stereotype of the passionate black man but then revealed a man with strength of character.
Thelma Mitchell created the character of Lenora. Lenora was Yolande’s best friend and confidant, then Jimmy’s secretary and lover.
Mitchell made her the equal of Jimmy’s lower-class street-smart passion-seeking example of Harlem. She gave Lenora an over-the-top sultry sexuality that showed Yolande what passion could be like for a woman and in this Mitchell was a joy to watch. Every moment her face and sensual body movement focused attention on the lines or actions of others, and yet her reactions were constantly infused with humor and she may have easily stolen the show, except for her consummate sense of her ensemble.
In the end, after the blatant uninhibited sexuality she wore like a glove, the moment Yolande asked her about “doing it with a girl,” her swift reaction unleashed the audience to laughter. This was a precious and memorable moment!
The best stories have themes and ideas that rise out of the need to explore but boil down to an important human life question. Knock Me a Kiss explores the Harlem Renaissance and idealism of the struggle black people fought. But in the end this tale boiled down to simple choices; a search for passion versus the struggle for political goals, a father’s high expectations versus daughter’s unrealistic adoration, and a mother’s support for the daughter she understands only too well versus the idealistic views of that daughter.
Knock Me a Kiss is an outstanding piece of work, entertaining, hilarious, poignant and teary. It’s what I’ve come to expect of Jubilee Theatre and I’ve never been disappointed.
506 Main Street,Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through June 16th
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday - Sunday at 3:00 pm
Tickets are from $15.00 - $25.00.
For information and tickets, go to www.jubileetheatre.org or call 1- 817-338-4411.