Within minutes, “Knock Me A Kiss,” currently playing at the West Coast Black Theatre Company, will have you captivated. Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. Dubois, famed African-American intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance, is a truly modern woman seeking a fairy-tale life in a segregated society. Emerald Rose Sullivan is revelatory in the role of Yolande.
Yolande has been biding her time before starting a new job as a school teacher in Baltimore dating the crude but charismatic Jimmy Lunceford (Joel Patrick King), an accomplished jazz musician waiting for his big break; but she longs for a more romantic and extravagant life than she thinks Jimmy can provide.
Yolande has a deep regard and respect for her famous father (E. Mani Cadet), and she wants to be in a relationship with someone who will meet the expectations she has developed as the daughter of a leader in the African-American community.
So, when she reconnects with her father’s surrogate son, Countee Cullen (Ethan Henry), a well-regarded and well-traveled poet, she decides to accept a date with him. The two share a similar joie de vivre and are both poets at heart. Countee treats Yolande with the respect and admiration she feels she deserves. They have what seems to be a palpable chemistry, and DuBois is beside himself about this match worthy of the social pages.
We can see that Yolande and Countee’s blooming relationship is doomed, because the rumors about Countee’s sexuality begin to bear out. Yet, the drama of their relationship and the impact on Yolande’s family and friends is fascinating, as is the glimpse into the rarefied world of African-American elites. The family seems to have every privilege of American life, yet Yolande in an almost throw away line says she can’t go to the Cotton Club to watch Jimmy perform, because there are “no coloreds allowed.”
We know that DuBois, the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, was an early proponent and activist for desegregation. He was also deeply committed to the cause of elevating the status of African Americans, particularly those whom he refers to as the “talented tenth,” well-educated and accomplished men at the forefront of the movement to desegregate. In “Knock Me a Kiss,” a fictionalized account of the DuBois family, DuBois is more concerned with the larger cause of advancing the rights of African Americans than with his wife and daughter’s happiness. Countee is also a less than sympathetic figure, because he uses Yolande to secure his stature in the black community. But a modern audience can empathize with Countee’s plight as a gay, black man dealing with segregation and a society that does not accept homosexuality.
Yolande develops a grudging relationship with her mother, Nina (Makeba Henry) when she begins to realize the sacrifices she has made for her father’s career and for her own seemingly charmed life. As Jimmy says, Yolande ages dramatically in her first few weeks as a married woman. The once carefree modern career woman has an awakening during the course of the play that only sharpens her resolve to live life on her own terms.
This play fits nicely within the Black Lives Matter movement, telling the compelling story of a family who were among the earliest advocates for desegregation and who made every effort to live with dignity and free of oppression. Although it is a stark reminder of just how long the struggle for racial equity has continued, “Knock Me a Kiss” is also a testament to the power of the human spirit.
Although many performances are sold out, it is well worth your effort to try to get tickets for this wonderfully well-rendered production. Check online for tickets at https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1 or call the box office at (941) 366-1505.