Knock Me a Kiss
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 20, 2010
I confess that I know almost nothing about W.E.B. DuBois; when I went to school, we learned (a tiny bit) about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, and that was the extent of our education in important African American thinkers after the Civil War and before Martin Luther King, Jr. So I was excited to see Knock Me a Kiss, the New Federal Theatre's presentation of Charles Smith's 2003 play about DuBois and his family. Even though this is billed as a fictionalized account of a single episode from the middle of DuBois's long life (he died at the age of 95 in 1963)—and there's a fine explanatory program note by scholar Howard Dodson that gives the audience guidance in what may and may not be true in Smith's interesting work—I was entirely satisfied by the glimpse into this important American life provided here. Knock Me a Kiss has left me hungry to learn more about DuBois.
At the center of Smith's play is a fascinating and unanswerable question: is it more important to live openly, honestly, and with integrity; or to live a dishonest and compromised life in service of a greater good? That's the choice facing W.E.B. DuBois's daughter Yolande in Knock Me a Kiss; to some extent, it's the one faced by most of the other characters in this play as well. At the time the play takes place (the late 1920s), DuBois is probably the most famous, respected, and successful black man in America: head of the NAACP, editor of their Crisis Magazine, and sought-after educator, sociologist, and author. DuBois takes his role at the vanguard of pre-Civil Rights Black America very seriously, and when the time comes for his only daughter Yolande to marry, he is determined to match her up with the most suitable young man he can find, to create a super-couple who will continue his work to lead his race toward equality and freedom.
In the play, almost by accident, DuBois finds just the young man he's looking for in his office one day: Countee Cullen, a talented poet and one of the leading lights of nascent Harlem Renaissance. Cullen has come to DuBois for a reference that will enable him to return to Paris (DuBois asks him what learning about dead white poets will do for African Americans; without missing a beat, Cullen replies that making a great international poet out of one them will be immeasurably important). Cullen is smart, educated, sophisticated, and ambitious; he comes for a reference and leaves—though he doesn't know it yet—with a wife.
Yolande, for her part, is 26 and a somewhat spoiled and willful daddy's girl. She talks about teaching the downtrodden in Baltimore, but for now she's content to live the high life in New York City. She's fallen in love with Jimmy Lunceford, an up-and-coming jazz musician and bandleader. But she knows her father will never approve of Jimmy, and when Countee—who she's known as a friend for years—asks her out for dinner, she quickly becomes enamored of this suave young man, even while yearning for the more dangerous and demonstrative Jimmy. And, as if this situation weren't already complicated enough: Countee Cullen is gay.
The play traces the events leading up the wedding and what transpires afterward: in a nutshell, DuBois's dream alliance becomes a nightmare for his daughter in almost no time at all.
Smith, and his director Chuck Smith, move through the story briskly and without too much reverence; DuBois is presented as richly human and flawed, despite his eminence, and Andre De Shields seems to be having a grand time bringing the man to life. DuBois's troubled wife Nina is played with depth by Marie Thomas. As the two young men vying for Yolande, Sean Phillips and Morocco Omari do fine work—Omari is instantly likeable and very sexy as Jimmy, the suitor we are rooting for, while Phillips is effective as the conflicted but highly manipulative Cullen. Gillian Glasco steals every scene she's in as Yolande's best pal Lenora. Erin Cherry is, unfortunately, somewhat disappointing in the role of Yolande; we never really see the woman behind the whiny spoiled child in her characterization.
The play struggles to avoid homophobia: when Yolande announces that she's discovered that Countee is "sexually abnormal," it was necessary to remember to place that in the context of its time rather than simply accept this announcement as a fact. But Knock Me a Kiss (named for a Louis Jordan song that Lunceford recorded) is recommended theatre because it tells a significant story in highly entertaining fashion, leaving the audience wanting to learn more about its intriguing subject.