Knock Me a Kiss
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
Featuring André De Shields, Marie Thomas, Sean Phillips, Erin Cherry
New Federal Theatre at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/25jwh7h
November 21, 2010 — December 5, 2010
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 28, 2010
House music (sound design by Bill Toles) puts you right the middle of the 20s hot jazz in 1928 Harlem, and keeps you there in every pause in the action. The overly ornate yet abbreviated set pieces (set design by Anthony Davidson) in the subterranean performance space at the Henry Street Settlement‘s Abrons Art Center crowd in on the details and sometimes rudderless storytelling in the Charles Smith and Chuck Smith new writing and directing adventure Knock Me a Kiss. W.E.B. Dubois, his wife, his daughter, his poet protegé, a jazz musician and woman friend of several characters blend and tell tales over several months in 1928 Harlem. As history, knowledge of these lives is essential. As theatre this production falters in part because we don’t know whose story is being told, and we as audience members are not allowed to fully embrace the human qualities of any one of the characters in a manner that makes sense. The male characters are all forgiven and the female characters, though provided some moving speeches, do not right true.
Yolande Dubois (Erin Cherry) is in her 20s, accustomed to her family wealth and status in Harlem, flirting uneasily with jazz musician Jimmy Lunceford (Morocco Omari) when we join this story in 1928. Should she marry for love a man she suspects does not live up to her father’s vision of building a future of professional and worthy people of color? Does she really want to teach high school in Baltimore as she announces to work on behalf of her people? We never know this character well enough to know if our primary focus should be following her slow awakening to the fact that every character has been hinting at or telling her directly for some weeks: the man her father pushes to marry her, poet Countee Cullen (Sean Phillips) is charming, educated, presentable, and a man who loves men. We don’t care enough about Yolande (or understand her journey well enough) to feel her reactions at the end of the play: resolve or petulance or understanding? It is unclear. And because this through line is murky, we can’t feel this as the classic tragedy of hubris, perhaps, that the playwright may intend.
We do have great sympathy for several characters and performances in pieces of this production. Gillian Glasco as Lenora, friend to Yolande and eventual girl friend to Lunceford plays worldly-wise with humor and charm. Marie Thomas as Yolande’s housebound mother Nina Dubois is saddled with a few too many lurking robe-adorned entrances (very Mary Tyrone and Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and yet this actress delivers some magnificent and moving monologues and ruminations on her past and current pains and losses as the wife of Dubois. Omari as Lunceford and Phillips as the poet Countee Cullen are charming and compelling on stage. W.E.B. Dubois (Andre De Shields) is written as a hero, a principled man, with no pieces of his rigidity, no gaps in his visage, presented on stage. From what the playbill notes tell us, we would expect a bit of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‘s Big Daddy bluster (with more style of course) — for this to work as the tragedy one suspects the playwright Smith desires, we may need to feel more of DuBois’s failures as a man, and husband, a father.
These historical characters are important and there are many ways to present their stories. The challenge here for this viewer is lack of a clear authorial dramatic perspective. If only the female characters were present on stage, for example, sharing their stories of past/present/future and the limits of their possible roles and who makes the decisions, one coherent line might be drawn. Alternatively, if just the male characters were present, jockeying for position and the different dimensions of the individuals playing roles in the Harlem Renaissance might be explored more deeply and consistently. With some of these choices more clearly etched, the conflicts between Dubois’ vision of an African-American elite within formal Victorian social rules running into the modern sensibilities of musician and freer spirit Lunceford might be clearly explored. The story of Yolande’s decision to marry a tragically inappropriate man is not sufficiently explored for this audience member to feel it at all. If this is her story, we would like to know her a bit more before she confronts these turning points in her life. If it is the story of everyone else on stage, the storytelling would benefit from some recalibration.
© Martha Wade Steketee (November 29, 2010)
[n.b. 12/8/2010 corrections to distinguish Charles Smith playwright from Chuck Smith director. Two distinct individuals.]