W.E.B. DuBois as matchmaker? Charles Smith’s Knock Me A Kiss is a wonderfully funny and unexpectedly moving imagining of one of America’s earliest celebrity marriages. Running at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center, the ensemble, under the direction of Chuck Smith, welcomes audiences into the home of renowned scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois as he sets up the “marriage of the century” between his daughter Yolanda and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. The couple wed in 1928 and the marriage was short-lived as Cullen preferred men and Yolanda was unwilling to live in a loveless marriage. The inimitable Andre DeShields portrays DuBois as a man of contradictions. The public DuBois was forward-thinking and interested in social advancement. In Knock Me A Kiss, DuBois at home is imperious and perhaps just like the other men of his time when it comes to his views on women. Nina, his wife, played by Marie Thomas, is only referred to as “Wife.” Nina is neglected and invisible. Yolande, played by Erin Cherry, eventually becomes another instrument for the advancement of the race; she is reduced to “Daughter!” when she fails to follow her father’s directions. One can see that she marries Countee to receive her father’s approval and dismiss jazz musician and conductor Jimmy Lunceford.
What is subtly illuminated in this production is the sacrifice that mother and daughter make in order to support DuBois' plans. It is fascinating that Countee Cullen, played by Sean Phillips, with all of his poetic talk of friendship and love, seems nonplused at the idea of having a phony marriage as long as it will provide him with the social mobility that he needs. For every cause there is a cost and, in this world, the price is a woman’s happiness.
Morocco Omari’s Jimmy Lunceford is dashing, and it is obvious why any woman would fall for him. What is not as clear from the production is why Lunceford would fall for Yolanda. The program notes describe the historical Yolande DuBois as “self-indulgent, underachieving, [and] uncertain.” Yolande is simultaneously spoiled and idealistic. She unequivocally wants to teach the less fortunate and she unequivocally wants a husband who can send her first class to Paris. Erin Cherry’s Yolande spends most of the first act behaving like a pouting debutante, and the theatrical Yolande comes off as immature and irritating. It is only in the second act, as the play’s unfortunate events unravel, that we catch a glimpse of the Cherry’s depth, and it would be lovely to see more of this earlier in the play.
Otherwise, Knock Me A Kiss is a fantastic night of theater, and I hope that the production can find another home in New York City.