BWW Reviews: KNOCK ME A KISS - A Moving and Powerful Glimpse at an Unsung Hero
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of theatre is its ability to shed light on an issue or people that the audience may not be wholly familiar with. The Harlem Renaissance is the well-known and highly lauded period of time when African-American artists became exposed to and appreciated by mainstream audiences. The Harlem Renaissance introduced Americans and even the world to the soul and heart of African-Americans, showcasing humanity and beginning to dismantle the stigma of animalism, livestock, and even chattel. Most of us are familiar with the celebrated heroes of the movement, like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois; yet, we are wholly unfamiliar with W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter, Yolande Du Bois. We are even less cognizant of her marriage to poet Countee Cullen.
Celebrated playwright Charles Smith's KNOCK ME A KISS is an elegiac and melancholic tale of betrayed love and devastating loss. The plot recounts the pressure that W.E.B. Du Bois placed on his daughter to marry Countee Cullen, a charming poet on the rise and a protégé of sorts to W.E.B. Du Bois. Through a proper courtship, Yolande's feelings grow for Countee, even though her true love is the crass Jimmy Lunceford. Their wedding is the social event of the decade, but their marriage is troubled from the very beginning. Yolande is quickly stressed and disgusted by a husband who refuses to be intimate with her, leaving her to clutch at strings in the unraveling of her own life.
Direction by Chuck Smith is superb. In addition to directing the show for its world premiere in 2000 at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, he also directed the 2010 New York premiere production at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Art Center. With him at the helm, the crisp and keenly written play clips along, earning numerous laughs during the first and second acts. Yet, as Yolande's relationship quickly degenerates, the timbre and tone shifts in the second act. The play tugs at the heartstrings of the audience and its depth incites intellectual response. Laughs are peppered in to keep the play from resembling funereal dirges, but the emotional impact and relevance takes over and offers the evening's most impactful moments.
Michelle Harper, starring as Yolande Du Bois, creates a character that is wholly naïve, charismatic, and a hopeless romantic. She is annoyed by and defies social conventions and propriety by going out all night and dancing with gentleman callers; however, she upholds her moral values by not encouraging or allowing these callers to sexualize her. She is embarrassed by and even shuns Jimmy's advances early in the show, wanting heightened chivalrous romance. However, by the end of the show she has been awakened to the needs of women and is disappointed by her husband's inability to fulfill them. Michelle Harper's Yolande Du Bois believably grows and matures over the course of the two acts.
As Countee Cullen, Mirron Willis is pristinely erudite, sophisticated, polite, and polished. He beguiles and bewitches Yolande Du Bois with his ability to provide the mannerly, gallant romance she desires. He easily woos her and is the pedigree of man her father approves of. Devastating cracks develop in their relationship as Yolande discovers that Countee has been keeping a large secret about himself from her, and Mirron Willis adroitly plays the character as highly guarded and even offended when Yolande discovers the secret. He brings remarkable life to their climatic battle of wits and emotions as she discovers that she has truly never known who he is.
As W.E.B. Du Bois, Wayne DeHart is austere and respectable. He upholds the ideals he believes in and turns a blind eye to any issues he doesn't want to see. He joyously gives his daughter's hand in marriage to a man he believes to be the next great voice of African-Americans; however, Wayne DeHart's cold and embittered denunciation of his daughter's need to keep her husband's secret is heartrending and crushing. The audience yearns to see the man stand up for his own daughter, but he recognizes her as an important pawn that can be played to further his own agenda.
Nina Du Bois is immaculately played and brought to striking life by Detria Ward. Nina Du Bois is suffering emotionally and mentally from the untimely death of her 18 month old son many years ago. Detria Ward makes Nina's pain utterly tangible and real as she delves into the character's psyche and brings up emotional floods of agony. Yet, when completely lucid, the character is filled with uplifting and majestic profundity. When describing the hate of segregation in Atlanta to her daughter, Detria Ward brings the house to a complete silence as every member of the audience hangs on every one of her beautifully written, spoken, and acted lines. In every scene she is in, Detria Ward resonates in our hearts and shares her magnetic, astounding, and splendid talent with the audience.
Jason E. Carmichael's Jimmy Lunceford is tactless and lacking in social graces. He earns a lot of the evening's laughter in his pursuit of Yolande. He is unashamed and unabashedly speaks his mind however and whenever he wants. Late in the second act, in a touching scene with Yolande, Jason E. Carmicheal brilliantly fleshes out Jimmy and grounds him in humanity.
An'tick Von Morphxing is hilarious and full of attitude as Lenora. She easily earns the night's most hearty laughs and guffaws. The character is enigmatic and helps Yolande to discover everything she is missing.
Jason Lont's Scenic Design is telling of the time period and expertly conveys the location. I was especially fond of his door-less entry to the building and the dwelling itself that the Du Bois family inhabits. It allows for rapid transitions between exterior to interior and keeps the pace moving forward.
Costume Design by Macy Perrone is beautiful and perfectly captures the styles of the late 1920s.
Kris Phelps' Lighting Design utilizes realistic lighting effects for all scenes. His gobo work for the illusion of windows in the Du Bois household and the shadow of a tree on the street is inspired and entirely effective.
Adrian Washington's Sound Design is evocative. The choice for preshow and intermission music pairs well with the play.
The Ensemble Theatre's production of Charles Smith's KNOCK ME A KISS is a captivating and entertaining glimpse into an unsung hero of The Harlem Renaissance. The defiance and willpower of Yolande Du Bois has not found its way into history books, and this pristine production sheds interesting light on the short and discontented marriage of Yolande Du Bois and Countee Cullen.
KNOCK ME A KISS runs until February 24, 2013 at The Ensemble Theatre at 3535 main Street, Houston, Texas. For more information and tickets please visit http://ensemblehouston.com or call (713) 520 - 0055.
All photos courtesy of Ensemble Theatre.
Wayne DeHart (W.E.B. Du Bois) and Michelle Harper (Yolande Du Bois)
Michelle Harper (Ylande Du Bois), Detria Ward (Nina Du Bois), Wayne DeHart (W.E.B. Du Bois), and Mirron Willis (Countee Cullen)