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A CurtainUp Review
Knock Me a Kiss

Your marriage would be the marriage of the decade. . .a star in the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance.—  W.E.B. DuBois
Andre De Shields
(Photo: Lia Chang)
When Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen married Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. Dubois, the black writer and founder of the N.A.A.C.P., it seemed like an auspicious union. The only problem was that Yolande was really in love with Jimmy Lunceford, a jazz musician she had met at Fisk University; and Cullen was far more attracted to his best friend, Harold Jackman, than he was to his wife.

With humor and compassion, Charles Smith's new play, Knock Me a Kiss, explores the events leading up to this ill-fated marriage. The play also simultaneously dethrones and exalts the legendary DuBois. Even for those who know nothing about the poet or his sexual orientation, it is more than obvious from the moment Cullen (Sean Phillips) walks onstage that he is gay. The only mystery is how Yolande and her father don't see it.

It is equally apparent that Yolande (Erin Cherry), a spoiled young lady who has vague dreams about working for the betterment of her race and teaching the less fortunate, will not have the will to resist her overbearing father. Nevertheless, the play is remarkably engrossing, despite the foregone resolution of the plot.

Much of the credit for this energy belongs to director Chuck Smith, who wrings out every ounce of humor the playwright has supplied. The rest belongs to the cast, particularly Andre De Shields, who plays DuBois as a larger-than-life figure unaware of his own failings. Morocco Omari, who gives Lunceford the classic charm of a Harlem Don Juan (Knock Me a Kiss is the title of a song he is arranging), and Gillian Glasco as Yolande's sexy friend Lenora, provide the audience with a colorful alternative to the nonphysical Yolande and Cullen.

This is a very pleasant show, but it is not for those who are averse to seeing actors mugging. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, Knock Me a Kiss is oddly most successful when the characters are most outlandish. De Shields seems unable to resist turning DuBois into a stereotypical overachieving black man whose only goal is to prove himself equal to the white men he imitates. Omari is so cool one expects women to faint in his path. Glasco is the sassy and streetwise black woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

Phillips has the unenviable task of playing a repressed man who thinks the height of romance is kissing a woman's hand and reciting poetry. But it's sometimes hard to figure out if the stiffness is in his acting or in his character.

But when Marie Thomas walks onstage as DuBois' stoic and half-crazed wife Nina, everything changes. Thomas is the emotional ballast the play needs so badly. She is the only one who seems to truly bear the brunt of her husband's need to sacrifice himself and his family for the cause. Every time DuBois calls her "wife" we are embarrassed for DuBois, but we feel for Nina.

Knock Me a Kiss is set in Harlem in 1928. But one would never know this from the set of DuBois' study. The various accoutrements of the study help the audience understand the man but do nothing to evoke the spirit of Harlem during its great Renaissance. The costumes help somewhat, but sometimes the play seems to float timelessly in space.

There's no doubt that Knock Me a Kiss is enormously entertaining. One only wishes it were a bit more challenging and a bit less predictable.

Knock Me a Kiss
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
Cast: Andre De Shields (W.E.B. DuBois), Erin Cherry (Yolande DuBois), Gillian Glasco (Lenora), Morocco Omari (Jimmy Lunceford), Sean Phillips (Countee Cullen), and Marie Thomas (Nina DuBois)
Set Design: Anthony Davidson
Costume Design: Ali Turns
Lighting Design: Shirley Prendergast
Sound Design: Bill Toles
Running Time: 2 hour 30 minutes, one intermission
Woodie King Jr's New Federal Theatre, Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center/Recital Hall, 466 Grand Street (between Pitt & Willett Streets)
From 11/11/10; opening 11/21/10; closing 12/05/10
Wednesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 3 & 8pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $25 (212) 352-3101 or
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 21, 2010
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