FORT WORTH — They all have eyes, but not everybody sees in Jubilee Theatre’s fine production of Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss, which opened Friday.
The play, which is a drama rich with comic touches, expands on the true story of the complicated love life of Yolande Du Bois, daughter of noted Harlem Renaissance author and civil rights advocate W.E.B. Du Bois.
Set in 1928, the plot focuses on Yolande (Whitney Coulter), who is torn between the flash and dash of band leader Jimmy Lunsford (Oris Phillips Jr.) and the much more sensitive and stable Countee Cullen (Christopher Piper), an up-and-coming poet whom Yolande’s father sees as a potentially valuable tool in his ongoing efforts to raise the status of blacks in American society. She makes her decision in Act One, and then regrets it deeply by the time the curtain rises on Act Two. And it is in this second half that the play hits full stride, carefully revealing its secrets, laying bare its characters and ramping up its tensions.
The success of this production begins with its script. It is beautifully structured, has great dialogue and makes its characters pulled from history highly theatrical and entertaining. It also operates on multiple levels. The text is engaging enough as a complex (and be forewarned, quite adult) romance. But it goes far beyond that to examine such questions as how far will driven people go to achieve their ends, and at what point do personal needs and desires have to be subjugated to the greater good.
Director Tre Garrett has done a great job of casting and staging this show. He allows his players to go right to the edge of overdoing their parts and then reins them in just before they go over the precipice.
The performances are also strong. Coulter is easy and natural as the focal point of the action. Although she is so central to everything that she almost never leaves the stage, she carries the weight of the role as if it were a bag of feathers.
Phillips is guilty of sometimes confusing projecting with shouting, but he plays his part so relentlessly (and with such humor) that it is impossible not to be won over by his performance. Many of those same positives could be applied to the nice supporting job turned in by Thelma Mitchell as Yolande’s best friend, Lenora. She is a delight in all of her scenes.
Dennis Raveneau plays father Du Bois as an extremely formal gentleman and he sometimes teeters close to affectation. But he brings such great bearing and presence to the role, and remains so consistent in his chosen interpretation, that his performance works fine.
Piper does a nice job of mirroring Raveneau’s performance, because his Countee is the reflection of himself the paternal Du Bois wants to see. Piper also displays an exceptional sense of timing with his lines.
Barbara Woods is extremely sympathetic and solid as Yolande’s mother, Nina. But you can’t help but feel that her character would be even more engaging and interesting if she and Garrett had chosen to play up Nina’s eccentricities a bit more.
The true-to-the-period set by Michael Pettigrew and costumes by Barbara O’Donoghue add a great deal of atmosphere, and give the script and performances the frame they deserve.
So, whether you have any idea who W.E.B. Du Bois was or not, this show will entertain you. And if you don’t know who he was, you probably should go.