Black History Month is underway, and Miami’s oldest professional theater company is offering up a historically inspired lesson in romance gone wrong, skewed family values and the private lives of public figures.
M Ensemble, which turns 43 this year, has resurfaced in a new venue, the Black Box Theater at the sleek South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Its production of Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss explores the ill-fated marriage of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter Yolande to poet Countee Cullen, with the script mixing humor, bawdiness, social theory and sorrow.
Staged by Lowell Williams, the play is set in late 1920s New York during the Harlem Renaissance. It helps to hold that period in your mind as you watch the show unfold because little in Gregory Contreras’ set or Shirley Richardson’s costume design suggests the ‘20s, the most notable exception being the Jazz Age dresses worn by leading lady Makeba Pace.
Pace plays Yolande Du Bois, the only surviving child of her history-making father — William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (André Gainey) — and his emotionally unsteady wife Nina (Carolyn Johnson). At first, Yolande is carrying on with musician and bandleader Jimmie Lunceford (Ethan Henry), another real-life figure from the era. Jimmie is crazy about Yolande, whose parental defiance (at age 26) involves staying out late dancing at Harlem clubs, though she hasn’t surrendered to Jimmie’s lusty wooing.
Though she is hot for Jimmie, Yolande is used to the sort of elevated lifestyle a struggling musician can’t provide. So before too long, she foolishly buys into the idea of marrying Cullen (Samuel Umoh), the admired young poet her father is mentoring.
Du Bois envisions a culturally inspiring union between his beautiful, educated daughter and the artistic, intellectual Cullen, and their news-making wedding is an extravagant one. Just one problem: As the playwright gradually reveals, Cullen is in love with the strikingly handsome Harold Jackman (another real-life figure, though he’s not a character in the play), and the poet’s interest in Yolande excludes romantic intimacy.
Knock Me a Kiss is, as noted, a kind of stew as far as tone goes. Sometimes, when Henry or Lela Elam (who plays Yolande’s fictional confidant Lenora) are onstage, the play is rollicking, even hilarious. Talk of sexual matters can be metaphorical or more straightforward, so that (coupled with some raw language) means this is absolutely not a play for kids. As for drama, Yolande’s contentious relationship with her mother eventually softens, but not until Nina has gone a little batty.
The most compelling reason to make the long drive to Cutler Bay — and unless you live in the southern part of Miami-Dade, it is a long drive — is to savor the actors’ work. Henry, who is up for a best actor Carbonell Award, is irresistibly magnetic as Jimmie, a kind of life force whenever he’s onstage. Pace is compelling as a spoiled young woman who winds up sadder but wiser.
Carbonell winner Elam is masterfully funny and provocative as Lenora, Umoh persuasive as the smart and secretive Cullen. If Gainey is rather warm and soft as Du Bois (Jeffrey Wright’s scary Boardwalk Empire character, Dr. Valentin Narcisse, is more in the intellectual style of Du Bois) and Johnson’s Nina is emotionally all over the place, well, that’s how playwright Smith crafted the couple.
Knock Me a Kiss is hardly a knockout of a play, but it does remind or enlighten the audience about a little slice of history. And it also serves as a welcome showcase for the considerable talents of Pace, Henry and Elam.