Theater Review: Harlem Renaissance Celebrity Wedding

Review of The New Federal Theatre’s production of Knock Me a Kiss
Play By Charles Smith, Directed by Chuck Smith
December 8, 2010
By: J.J. El-Far

I had the pleasure of seeing the New Federalist Theatre’s joyful production of Knock Me a Kiss this past week at Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement. The theatre could not be any more downtown, so I expected to walk into a room full of hipsters and Village types. To my surprise the audience was remarkably mixed, and featured people of all ages, colors, and disciplines. In fact, the audience felt distinctly uptown.

The play was a true to life dramatization of the engagement of W.E.B. Dubois’ only daughter, Yolande to Countee Cullen, an eminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Clearly, Playwright Charles Smith did extensive research on the biographies of these major figures and time period, but the story is so rich that we forget it is not fiction. Bold and careful actors bring the Dubois family and friends to life, especially through the near pitch perfect performance by Andre De Shields as the man himself.

In solidarity with these characters, audience members freely voiced with opinions of the action on stage. In one pivotal moment when Yolande is forced to choose between her lover, Jimmy Lunceford, and her father’s selection, Countee Cullen, once audience member cried out, “come on girl, who you gonna pick?” These audience interactions may have been a vestige of a call and response tradition, but also a testament of the play’s engrossing effect.

In fact the entire production, though contained in a small theater, transported us back to Harlem in 1928, the age of Cab Calloway, Langston Hughes, and the Cotton Club: the height of the Harlem Renaissance. African masks and artwork hung on the wall, a shelf full of thick old books, Victorian era finery, and exquisite costumes paint a rich picture of life in the Dubois’ brownstone.

The set designer, Anthony Davidson went the extra mile with fine details like authentic family photos on the mantelpiece, and W.E.B. Dubois’ letterhead reflecting their actual address. Clearly, the artistic visionaries of this play understood that this was not just any house they were recreating, it was an icon specific to a time and place that it represented. Every detail in the house was indicative of the Dubois’ deliberate reshaping of the African American identity through his own image.

The unique blend of cultures that established the Harlem Renaissance can also be identified in the language used in this play. Yolande, played by Erin Cherry shuffles back and forth between two worlds marked by two very different dialects. Jimmy Lunceford, played by Morocco Omari and her friend Lenora, played by Gillian Glasco contribute much of the humor in this play through their colloquial gems. Jimmy tells Yolanda “he’ll be quieter than a mouse pissin’ on cotton,” while Dubois and Countee speak with an unmistakably Victorian diction and precision. Jimmy refers to himself as a “the H.N.I.C. or Head N*gga in charge,” while Dubois takes great pride in his politically correct use of “Negro,” and his establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The playwright is careful to make these distinctions that not only reveal the vast difference in these two characters, but also marks a historical turning point in this community.

The director, Chuck Smith (yes, the playwright’s name is Charles Smith, and no they are not the same person) had a unique challenge when casting this play. While many theater companies are experimenting with non-traditional casting, a historical drama about a major historical figure that reformed views on race in the US, requires not only that the actors looks like the people they are playing, but that subtle distinctions in skin color matter. Marie Thomas, playing Nina Dubois is very fair skinned, while Erin Cherry playing her daughter is a richer shade of chocolate.

At first, this took me out of the moment, but after looking at family photos of the real people, I realize that Nina Dubois was very fair in real life, and Thomas looks very much the part. However, the real Yolanda was heavier set, and far less lovely than Erin Cherry. Again, De Shields proved the most impressive cast, and watching him transform into Dubois, complete with pointy beard, was a bit of theater magic.

The entire production was polished, steadily paced, and easy to enjoy. At times very funny, especially watching Countee Cullen’s closeted mannerisms as he tried to hide his now easy to recognize homosexuality. However the actors were able to change the emotional temperature on the dime, sometimes even cutting off a laugh with a dramatic bomb. Marie Thomas reached into moments of depth with Nina Dubois’ monologues about being frozen in time after the death of her young son, and not being able to heal from the past. The subtlety of these personal reflections allowed the audience to make connections of the larger implications of being crippled by ones past, which is indicative of the African American cultural psyche.

The play also draws a sharp distinction between romantic love and social marriage. What Dubois thought would be the “crown jewel of the Harlem Renaissance,” turned out to be an epic mismatch. Jimmy professes his love and intention to marry Yolanda, and maintains “it don’t matter who says the words as long as we believe them,” while she insists on a proper society wedding. Like her father, Yolanda is keenly aware of the glare of public scrutiny, and feels the pressure to comply. Dubois emphasizes the pragmatic method of selecting a mate based on bloodline, breeding, physique, and brains. He tells Yolanda, “love is familiarity.” Though their wedding would be the event of the century, “the perfect union to shatter African stereotypes” their marriage could not sustain itself on Dubois’ values alone.

Knock Me a Kiss, directed by Chuck Smith at New Federal Theatre, Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center, 11/11-12/5/2010

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