The social apex of the Harlem Renaissance was the marriage in 1928 of the poet Countee Cullen to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, educator and leader in establishing new respect for the America Negro. But the marriage was not all it appeared to be, and Knock Me a Kiss takes us behind the scenes to show, not only a domestic conflict, but a war between carnal flesh and aspiring mind.
The Du Bois family is beautifully etched by playwright Charles Smith. The patriarch W.E.B. Du Bois, is played by Wayne DeHart in a low ley, subtle personification that captures quiet authority and a demeanor which treasures civility. Yet, as the play progresses, we see how a dedicated concern for the growth in respect for the Negro can trample underfoot the happiness of his own daughter. Yolande is played by Michelle Elaine, and her grace, beauty, poise and emotional range are captivating in Act One, though the disappointment in her marriage leaves her less scope in Act Two.
Nina, the wife of Dr. Du Bois and the mother of Yolande, is played by Detria Ward, so gifted an actress that every gesture becomes interesting, every reaction significant. The role is minor, but the performance so compelling my excitement rose whenever she came onstage. These are the inhabitants of a charmed world, financially secure, filled with letters exchanged with famous intellectuals, and the set, designed by Jason Lont, of a Harlem brownstone indicates this - warm, textured, filled with books, and yet curiously formal, posed, as though appearances were everything.
In contrast, bandleader Jimmy Lunceford is brash, irreverent, salty, sensual, with a swagger in his walk and a song on his lips - no wonder Yolande is drawn to him, as is Yolande's friend Lenora. Jason E. Carmichael plays Jimmy brilliantly, creating a complex character with rough charm and an appealing energy, and a strength of character revealed in Act Two. As Lenora, An'tick Von Morphxing brings a gutsy, full-blown personality to a role that calls for it, and her full-blooded immersion in the role pays off with comic vitality.
Playwright Charles Smith has the talents of a master - he knows how to craft a scene, how to end it with a punch, or with witty charm, and he has selected a rich vein of history for this important work. But he fails in the character of Countee Cullen - we never see Countee's power as a poet, instead we see an ineffectual bumbler, a deceiver, a weakling, and one without half the power of expression Jimmy has. This is such an unexpectedly one-dimensional characterization that one wonders if homophobia is at work, for the best man at Countee's wedding, one he traveled to Paris with, was Harold Jackman, the best-looking man in Harlem. Though never seen in the play, Jackman is almost a seventh character, with his invisible presence hovering and haunting the protagonists. Mirron Willis plays Countee - Willis is an experienced Shakespearean actor, new to the Ensemble Theatre and trailing clouds of credentials, but he fails to find the inherent inner authority the playwright neglected to include.
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The play touches upon prejudice, and references brutality against African-Americans, painful almost beyond belief, but it is essentially a family drama, in some ways like the much-revived stage vehicle The Heiress, a struggle between a domineering father and a self-willed daughter. But Knock Me a Kiss differs in that it is rich in humor, and filled with grace, beauty, and poetry everywhere - everywhere except for the poet. The comedic drama is wonderfully directed by Chuck Smith, who has helmed it several times before; the pace and timing are exemplary, and the acting almost universally superb.
The Houston premiere of an important comedic drama delivers a compelling family set against a moment in history, and the synthesis of superb acting, a gripping story, wonderful comic moments, and the vigor of authenticity make this must-see theater.
Knock Me a Kiss continues through February 24 at The Ensemble Theatre,3535 Main St. For information or ticketing, call 713-520-0055 or contact www.ensemblehouston.com.