The Harlem Renaissance, 1928, was a time of social upheaval. America was beginning to change its perception of the “negro.” The newspapers and attending society were singing the praises of the “New Negro.” Brilliant African-American talent was emerging all over the country, spawning a new artistic momentum: musicians, poets, writers and social movements aimed at ending segregation and creating a burgeoning civil rights movement. A prominent leader in this movement was social reformer W.E.B. Du Bois.
In Knock Me A Kiss, by Charles Smith at Ensemble Theatre, we are given a fascinating, earnest — if fictional — glimpse of the private Du Bois and his family. In this spirited production we are taken out of public life and into the obsessions, flaws, loves and betrayals of the Du Bois family.
Du Bois’ is a literary home: a cozy, spacious apartment, imagined by Ron Newell in his excellent set design, of fine furniture, books and expensive liquor overlooking the center of Harlem.
Laughter and singing is heard as two young socialites “black bottom” and Charleston into the apartment: Yolande, a beautiful, pampered and naive debutante and Jimmy Luncfore, a band leader and contender to the jazz throne occupied by greats like Count Bassie and Duke Ellington. Tonight Jimmy wants one thing; his hands can’t stop wandering all over Yolande’s lovely red dress, while Yolande is expertly twisting and dodging his charming but overt advances.
Emily Terry as Yolande is a young actress with spunk. She dives into a highly complex character, at times not quite sure which end is the deep end. There is awkwardness about her acting that comes from pushing for results, but her earnestness and lovely stage presence make up for it.
Kyle Carthens as Jimmy is a seasoned young actor. His tall, graceful presence and charming smile ease him around the room like a fox in a henhouse. He smiles, dances, stalks and drunkenly expounds on his ardent appetite for sex. Despite his outlandishly bad manners and frank language, we can’t help but like him — even though he may be a wooden dime in Yolande’s pocket.
Enter Nina Du Bois, wife to W.E.B. and mother to Yolande. Mama is a little “off.” She has “a nervous condition.” Played with quiet, childlike anxiety by Pamela Morton, Nina is hiding a dark secret and wanders around the house like a stray cat on a wet floor. Morton has some fine moments where everything clicks. Still, she tends to hold herself in, when the play is demanding unfettered release. She hides from the demons tearing at her soul, which leaves the character of Nina somehow unfinished.
W.E.B Du Bois is played with a stiff condescension by Edward Swan. He creates an obsessed man, an impenetrable fortress of logic, honor and self-absorbed egotism willing to sacrifice his daughter into a loveless marriage in order to further the cause of “negro superiority.” He believes if his daughter marries the famous poet Countee Cullen, the world will see it as the wedding of the decade — a great poet marrying the beautiful daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous reformer.
The trouble in paradise is that Countee is gay.
Countee is an intense, polite young man completely inept in the politics of the cause. He agrees to marry Yolande never intending to end his liaisons with the “handsomest man in Harlem,” Harold Jackman. Dyrell Barnett as Countee beautifully portrays the poet’s elegance and intelligence. He is kind and gentle with Yolande, but wisely never shows her the passion he has reserved for his lover, Jackman. It’s a fine, reserved performance of a conflicted genius.
Woven into the action is Yolande’s friend Lenora, played with verve and humor by Tonya Broach. She struts and primps and laughs, providing the perfect foil for Yolanda’s innocence. Broach is a natural comedian.
The director Caroline Jackson Smith has created a play with behavior and finesse. She has gathered together a cast of varying experience levels and has knit them into a play that ultimately becomes a compelling story. There is integrity in this endeavor, starting at the top with Smith and echoed by every member of the cast.
Perhaps the most remarkable story here is the resilience of Ensemble Theatre. They have finally arrived at a wonderful, comfortable and flexible home in Coventry Village. Their new residence gives them growing space and room to create a new future.
Knock Me A Kiss Through Feb. 23 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensemble-theatre.com.