“I don’t fit into your father’s plan of creating a new batch of upper-crust Negroes,” declares Harlem jazz musician Jimmy (Oris Phillips Jr.) to his longtime casual girlfriend Yolande Du Bois (Whitney Coulter). It happens that Yolande’s dad is none other than the formidable historian and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois (Dennis Raveneau), so Jimmy’s relative lack of education and his disreputable job as a nightclub performer are all impediments to marriage. The pampered Yolande herself wants a distinguished husband and a lavish society wedding that “correspond to my status,” so like her iconic father, she can’t seem to separate love from social duty and privilege. In that, she’s hardly alone. Many of the characters in playwright Charles Smith’s fascinating but flawed historical rom-com Knock Me a Kiss — currently receiving a crisp, buoyant staging at Jubilee Theatre –– confuse what they want with what they need.
Helmed by Jubilee artistic director Tre Garrett, the show is set in 1928 New York City at the pinnacle of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, the great intellectual and artistic flowering of the urban African-American experience. Like many of Smith’s previous works, Knock Me a Kiss mixes real and fictional characters to recreate events that are loosely based on fact. It’s true that in the late 1920s, the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois married her father’s protégé –– the celebrated young poet Countee Cullen (played in the Jubilee show by Christopher Piper) –– and then divorced him just two years later. Even at the time, rumor had it that Yolande wed Cullen largely to realize her imperious father’s fantasy of the ideal black marriage. Moreover, it was whispered that Cullen actually “preferred the company of other men,” as the euphemism went. The playwright assumes all of this is true and spins a tale of the bright but conflicted Yolande weighing the fate of her personal life amid intense family pressures and intimate yearnings.
Knock Me a Kiss peeks inside the Harlem apartment of the esteemed Du Bois family and sees a trio of very complicated, sometimes unpleasant people: Besides dictatorial patriarch W.E.B. and his mercurial only child Yolande, there’s Yolande’s mom Nina (Barbara Woods), a borderline agoraphobic suffering from severe depression who never recovered from the death of her infant son many years earlier. In terms of romantic compatibility, W.E.B. and Nina are far from marital role models: She refers to sex with him as “a wifely obligation,” while his tireless activism in the cause of bettering African-Americans leads him to ignore his family’s needs. Yolande, seeking a match suitable to her education and upbringing (and pleasing to Daddy, of course), dumps crude jazzman Jimmy for eloquent, impeccably mannered Harvard grad Countee. Her streetwise best friend Lenora (a scene-stealing Thelma Mitchell), who knows all the gossip about Cullen and his handsome “best friend” Harold Jackman, eyes the proceedings with a certain voyeuristic glee but warns Yolande to deal with the world as it really is, not as she wants it to be. That’s a difficult task for most people, of course, but for a young woman who yearns for erotic love and social approval, confronting reality head-on is a Herculean feat of emotional maturity and self-discipline.
In its best moments, Knock Me a Kiss manages to be a smart, multi-layered character study that’s also dishy fun. Director Garrett allows his talented cast to indulge in the kind of big, boisterous, audience-pleasing comic moments that Jubilee’s late founder Rudy Eastman was famous for yet maintain the focus and integrity of their distinctively drawn characters. As the civil rights giant, Raveneau is appropriately steely but reveals how the great man’s moral vision was tragically blinkered when it came to his wife and daughter. Coulter dares to make Yolande snobbish, flighty, and unlikable, which gives her romantic crisis an edgy authenticity –– she’s not just a passive victim of her father’s elitism but also, at times, an eager participant in it. As W.E.B.’s long-suffering wife, Woods exudes a regal weariness that culminates in the heartbreaking revelation of precisely how and why her baby boy died. Phillips makes the jazz musician Jimmy both a charmer and, at least potentially, a risk for Yolande: His wandering eye and violent temper don’t bode well for the lifelong marital commitment she seeks.
The major shortcoming in Knock Me a Kiss is the character of Cullen, who’s oddly superficial and underwritten compared to the other roles. Piper does a fine job depicting the poet’s delicately cultured personality, but too often the poet functions as a comic prop in Yolande’s conundrum rather than another forceful, complex onstage presence. Granted, the play is her story, but if the playwright had investigated Cullen’s life as a semi-closeted gay artist during the Harlem Renaissance a bit more, Knock Me a Kiss would’ve felt complete. As it is now, Jubilee’s production is a brainy, sometimes frustrating romp about good intentions and dire consequences.
Knock Me a Kiss
Thru June 16 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. $10-25. 817-338-4411.