The first inkling that “Knock Me A Kiss” (playing through February 23, 2014 at the Ensemble Theatre) is going to be a fine evening of entertainment is when you first see the stage. It is elegantly appointed with touches of grandeur reflecting the lives of the characters. In the back is the home office of D.E.B. Du Bois (Civil Rights Leader, Sociologist, and Writer). Down stage nearest the audience is his daughter’s boudoir consisting of a dressing table. To the right of that is the main room of the house and Up Stage right is the night club stage. There are two well appointed rugs for the office area and living room. A love seat, ornate chairs and end tables round out the set.
Although having an all African American cast “Knock Me A Kiss” is a play that has universal appeal and strives to break the stereotype of black families in 1928 Harlem. At the same time it goes into great detail as to what it was like to live as an African American in the north and south at that time. The title of the play is from a song by Mike Jackson and Andy Razaf and made famous by Louis Jordan. It is a nonsense song sung by a man who will give up all the things he loves (cake, pie, jam) for a chance to kiss her lips that “taste like candy, brandy and wine…peaches, bananas and everything fine”. In the early part of the play, Jimmy sings this song to Yolande in order to woo her.
W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois, 1868 - 1963 was a man of learning who spent his life fighting prejudice around the country. He was one of the founding members of the NAACP (that he later left over disagreements over integration) and when his wife Nina died in 1950, he married Shirley Graham, denounced his United States citizenship and moved to Ghana where he lived until his death in 1963 (one day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
The play concerns Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande who has reached marriage age but is dating a swing band leader, Jimmy Luncfore much to her mother’s dismay. At this time, her father has become the patron of the up and coming young Harlem poet, Countee Cullen. The elder Du Bois decides that perhaps Countee would be a better suited husband and arranges a meeting between the two young people. This brings indecision to Yolande. She must choose between the man who excites her but may not be suitable in her father’s eyes or a “respectable” man who she does not really know or have feelings for. She finally makes up her mind when Jimmy crashes a family dinner where Countee is the guest. Jimmy is sent packing and Yolande sets her sights on Countee. After a long courtship, they marry (it being the crown jewel social event of Harlem history) but problems ensue during the honeymoon when Countee fails to consummate the marriage. It is later hinted that he is possibly homosexual or bi-sexual and after a short year and a half they divorce. In the meantime, Jimmy has taken up with Yolande’s friend, Lenora.
What makes this play great is that it deals with universal problems. Mr. Du Bois is torn between the unspoken regulations of his era concerning a man’s place in the marriage (his wife is long suffering to say the least). Yolande is torn between two loves. Jimmy absolutely adores Yolande but is not equipped to express his love. Lenora loves Jimmy but realizes she will never be more than “the girl friend”. Nina (Yolande’s mother) tries to give advice but is strapped by the conventions of the times. During the play she tells of the heartbreak of losing her young son after being turned away from three white hospitals in Atlanta, Georgia. It is also very telling when her husband simply refers to her as “wife” in a dismissive tone.
The play is a fictional representation of real life people. W.E.B. Du Bois is considered one of the original organizers of the civil rights movement. His daughter Yolande moved to Baltimore after her divorce to teach high school history where she married Arnett Williams with whom she had a daughter, Yolanda De Bois Williams. Countee Cullen never had children but later married Ida Mae Robertson six years prior to his death from complications of high blood pressure and uremic poisoning in 1946 at age 43. Jimmy Luncfore had a stellar career as a swing band leader and was a mainstay at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He died of a heart attack in 1946 after being supposedly poisoned at a fish restaurant that resented serving African Americans.
The cast is exceptional in their portrayal of characters. Dyrell Barnett as Countee Cullen gives a brilliant performance of a man who fights to be accepted as a poet and must hide his sexual preference deep within himself. Edward Swan as W.E.B. Du Bois is elegant in his appearance. His manners portray the requirements of the times while his treatment of wife and daughter shows that gender prejudice was still rampant in that society. Pamela Morton as Nina Du Bois has suffered much in her life being the wife of a famous and well traveled man. It is she who keeps the home fires burning as he goes forth the save the Negro race. She is stuck in a mental purgatory when her opinion goes unnoticed by her family.
Kyle Carthens as Jimmy Luncfore brings brashness to the role as the young band leader and suitor of Yolande. In his world, women are a dime a dozen and he cannot cope with the trappings and morals of high society. Tonya Broach as Lenora (Yolanda’s girl friend) supplies much of the comic relief in the play. She is frank with Yolande in all things and tells it like it is. Emily Terry as Yolande truly is the star of the show. She plays the role of a young woman torn between duty and convention vs. love as well as being able to live her own life. In a lot of cases she is the one stuck in the middle of everyone while trying to find her own voice.
Prude Alert: There is mild language as well as frank sexual references and discussions. The N word is used quite a bit by one character but can be seen as the norm for the times and place. If you can forget your sensitivities for an evening you will find the play extremely enlightening and entertaining.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): “Knock Me A Kiss” takes an intriguing true story and combines it with exceptional acting on a profoundly well designed stage making for a singular theatrical experience. It is a story that rings true even in today’s times. Fill the seats for this one.
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ensemble Theatre of Cleveland Performs in the former Coventry School that is located at 2843 Washington Blvd. Cleveland Hts., OH 44118
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www.ensemble-theatre.org. Click on the “Box Office” link.