Knock Me a Kiss is a Must See

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[Theater: Play]

All through an empty place I go,

And find her not in any room;

The candles and the lamps I light

Go down before a wind of gloom.

Loss of Love by Countee Cullen

In his poem Loss of Love, Countee Cullen could just as well have been talking about his short term marriage to Yolande, the daughter of W.E.B. Dubois, played by Erin Cherry in Charles Smith's play Knock Me A Kiss running at the New Federal Theatre's Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Art Center, located at 466 Grand Street in Manhattan.

Poet, novelist and playwright Countee Cullen was born in March 1903.  Although it’s said that Cullen was raised by his paternal grandmother until her death in 1918, much of Cullen's early life is a bit of a mystery with Cullen initially claiming to be born in Louisville, Kentucky and then later claiming his birthplace as New York City.  There was such mystery surrounding the early life of Countee Cullen his childhood is a blur.  What is known however is that sometime around 1918, Countee Cullen was unofficially adopted by the effeminate minister Reverend Frederick A. Cullen and his wife Carolyn Belle (Mitchell) Cullen.

Whether Reverend Cullen's latent homosexuality had any influence on Countee Cullen's own quietly kept homosexuality or at least ambiguous sexual nature remained a secret between the pair although they shared a very close relationship with the Reverend occasionally traveling to Paris with Countee.  Cullen was an outstanding student in high school where he began to write poetry.  While in college he wrote several poems which led to his works the Ballad of the Brown Girl, Color and Copper Sun.  It was Mr. Cullen's intellectual ability to write verses, poems, ballads, and sonnets similar to Keats that brought him scholarships and respectability in the upper ec­helon of both the white and black literary worlds catapulting him to fame.

Countee Cullen became the Negro poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance.  He won more literature prizes than any black writer in the 1920s and eventually walked away with a Guggenheim Fellowship.   A graduate of NYU, the multi-prize winner also held a degree from Harvard with a masters in French and English.  It was Cullen's literary genius that brought him to the attention of W.E.B. Dubois, an  American sociologist, black protest leader, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and author of The Souls of Black Folks.  Dubois felt a kinship with Cullen who was a conservative, intellectual and traditionalist as was Dubois.  Dubois saw Countee as the young “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance and placed great hope in Cullen's future.  In fact, as per Charles Smith's portrayal of Cullen in “Knock Me A Kiss,” ­Cullen, played by Sean Phillips, in W.E.B. Dubois' eyes served as a replacement to his dead son and thus could do no wrong.

The haughty Dubois portrayed by Andre De Shields in Smith's play was a man consumed with the social ills of the black community.  Yet at the same time, Dubois was an elitist filled with a sense of self-importance and concerns for social appearances.  As the busy Dubois saw it he had a certain image to protect.  Thus, was eager to unite his daughter in marriage with Cullen whom he valued as a man close to his own ideals and intellectual prowess.  In the play, Yolande is portrayed as a rather spoiled and fickle young lady enamored of band leader Jimme Lunceford (Morocco Omari) whom she adored yet saw as an indigent musician incapable of keeping her in the lifestyle in which she was accustomed.  Yet she and her friend Lenora (Gillian Glasco) followed Jimme from club to club enticing him and giving Jimme the idea that one day he might put a ring on Yolande's finger.  That was until Yolande's father reminded her of her social obligations to the family name and the importance of marrying upward.  Despite her mother's (Marie Thomas) warning that marrying without love could end badly, Yolande gave into her father's wishes and Cullen's charm.  Therefore 1928, found both Yolande and Cullen at the center of the most lavish and expensive wedding in Harlem history.

Erin Cherry did a fine job of portraying Yolande's shock and disappointment at finding their marriage would never be consummated.  Despite her father's desire that Yolande keep a stiff upper lip and remain in her farce of a marriage, Yolande tired of her husband's frequent trips with his best man and his sexual aloofness and divorced Cullen in 1930 generously preserving his secret as to why their marriage ended.

I thoroughly enjoyed Knock Me A Kiss.  It was a history lesson about the Harlem Renaissance and the artists that lived within that era.  It was also an entertaining production with all the actors playing their roles to high order and playwright Charles Smith did a fine job in telling his story of the brief but renowned marriage of Yolande Dubois and Countee Cullen.  Interestingly, Countee Cullen remarried six years before his death in 1946 and from all accounts it was a happy marriage.

I recommend this play but you better hurry and catch it.  The last performance is Sunday, December 5th.

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