Duty first, self second. That is, reportedly, Queen Elizabeth II’s mantra, and she learned it from her father, King George VI. But long before she wore the crown, another father-daughter duo grappled with a similarly sacrificial sentiment. Jubilee Theatre’s latest production, Knock Me a Kiss, mines the culturally rich world of the Harlem Renaissance, a period rife with dreamers and thinkers exploring new mediums and forms of expression.
Our stage players are real life characters: W.E.B. Du Bois was an intellectual activist, committed to the end of segregation even if it meant giving over his own family to the cause. The young Yolande Du Bois was, essentially, a vehicle for her father’s ambitions, but she had her own ideals, misguided and misdirected though they might have been in the beginning. And is it truly misguided to put duty before love, especially when you’ve been raised to expect certain luxuries in life? First class trips to Paris? Necessary. Equality for black men and women? Absolutely necessary. Romance, passion, someone to talk to in the dark? Those are the things Yolande thought she could afford to give up.
With questions like that, Charles Smith’s play could have easily translated as a tad overwrought, what with the characters’ frequent flights of high-minded, tongue-twisting fancy. Instead, in the steady hands of director Tre Garrett, we are afforded a crack at history, a fictional extrapolation on the society wedding of Yolande to the poet Countee Cullen. Cullen was a mentee and close friend of Du Bois (Dennis Raveneau) who spoke to the people in a different yet similarly affecting way. Yolande (Whitney Coulter) is 26, beautiful, and enjoying the courtship of two different men who entice her to leave the most important man in her life—her veritable giant of a father, who she adores while simultaneously vilifying her somewhat batty mother (Barbara Woods, affecting and funny). She revels in the attentions of promising bandleader Jimmy Lunsford (Oris Phillip Jr.), a rough-and-tumble scrapper with a heart of gold, but ultimately decides to marry the more prominent and proper Cullen (Christopher Piper). Their union becomes the social event of spring, 1928, but the story doesn’t end with happily ever after. In fact, we’re more concerned with the ‘before’ and the plain old, not so happy ‘after’.
Lights, by Nikki Deshae Smith, and the one-room set, by Michael Pettigrew, function beautifully to reveal the essential bits of Harlem: Du Bois’s study, the sidewalk, places where history was made and changed. It’s easy to get caught up in the sheer drama of it all, since there’s an assumption that we already have a basic idea of who these people are and why we’re watching this brief sliver of time, and we’re working with serious, relevant issues of identity and race. But Garrett and the actors find real vitality (and delight) in the smaller characters, such as Yolande’s friend Lenora, played by an electric Thelma Mitchell, and Jimmy, who grows into himself as the man Yolande let get away. Even Cullen, to some extent, exists here only in orbit of the Du Bois family, and Piper plays the conflicted poet with the barest flickers of emotion, hanging on to his secret by a few tightly wound threads. Watching and listening to these characters dig into and sometimes forfeit their lives makes us ponder what dreams of our own we might either hold tight or let go.