Charles Smith has fashioned a lively play out of a juicy, if tragic historical footnote in Knock Me a Kiss, now enjoying its New York premiere under the auspices of the New Federal Theatre at the Abrons Arts Center under Chuck Smith’s skilled direction.
The work concerns what was supposed to be the wedding of the century, at least in terms of African-American advancement. In the spring of 1928, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Yolande Du Bois, the pampered only daughter of scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, married up-and-coming poet Countee Cullen, a suitor hand-picked by her illustrious father. The wedding, attended by thousands of well-wishers, went off without a hitch — in every sense of the word. Yolande soon filed for divorce.
André De Shields plays Du Bois, the celebrated crusader who — judging from Smith’s depiction — was as reactionary in his private life as his public persona appeared progressive. It’s clear early on that we’re not meant to like this familial despot, a self-styled proponent of women’s rights who addresses his semi-addled spouse, Nina (touching Marie Thomas), imperiously as “Wife” and brags to his protégé Cullen (Sean Phillips) about the “excellent household training” that Nina received from her mother and will presumably pass down.
What we see in Yolande is not a guaranteed domestic goddess, but a spoiled, Daddy-fixated bundle of contradictions. While preparing to help the “the downtrodden and the less fortunate” as a high-school teacher in Baltimore, Yolande expects any prospective fiancée to provide her with nothing less than a first-class honeymoon in Paris. Flirty yet repressed, this materialistic idealist is a fascinating study.
Unfortunately, Erin Cherry offers only simplistic glimpses of the facets of Yolande’s personality. Enthusing about her do-gooder prospects, Cherry’s Yolande appears mentally challenged; while coping with the stresses of a sexless marriage (at least on her end: Cullen, it turns out, prefers his partners male), she settles into a permanent pout and singsongy whine.
It’s not as if Yolande’s outspoken best friend Lenora (Gillian Glasco) didn’t warn her. Smith pours a lot of downhome wisdom and likability into this fictional sidekick, and Glasco delivers on every nuance. Meanwhile, Morocco Omari brings to the role of Jimmy Lunceford, the struggling jazz musician who had first claim on Yolande’s affections, a smoldering sensuality mixed with Billy Dee Williams’ suavity. Indeed, any scene involving Jimmy and/or Lenora is guaranteed to bring a jazzy uplift, helpful in offsetting the drear of this high-minded yet stultifying household.
If the playwright occasionally stumbles in inserting chunks of clunky exposition (surely Nina doesn’t need to describe the grand wedding to Yolande: she was there), he does a masterful job of teasing out the details of a prior tragedy which left a mother pathologically bereft, a father thwarted in his dynastic ambition, and a hapless daughter willing to gamble her future on a myopic notion of the model marriage.