How about an evening of dramatic entertainment comprising equal amounts of comedy, melodrama, wit, sass, and wisdom — all skillfully compacted within an historical framework?
This is Charles Smith’s delightful and also poignant play “Knock Me a Kiss” that had a brief run in New York in 2010 and is now touring with the same acclaimed company, under the able direction of Chuck Smith (no relation to the playwright). The Crossroads Theater Company could not have picked a more enjoyable show to kick off its season.
The play is set in 1928, during a period recognized and revered as the Harlem Renaissance. In it, the highly regarded black scholar, activist, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People W.E.B. Dubois has decided it is time for his charming, well-educated 26-year-old daughter, Yolande, to get a husband. Dubois’ protege poet Countee Cullen is already being viewed as a prominent figure among the young black artists and intellectuals of the time; he also appears to be the perfect young man for Yolande — or is he? And does father, thinking only of a significant match for his daughter and also what a magnificent social event their well publicized wedding will be, really know best?
So what is the high-spirited but also relatively naive Yolande to do, in the face of her father’s disapproval about her budding romantic relationship with the up-and-coming but still struggling swing band leader Jimmy Lunceford? These are the questions that are answered in a play in which large dollops of risque humor as well as many demonstrations of old-fashioned hubris are used to define the characters and their follies.
Smith has deftly re-imagined the back story behind the exceedingly strange real-life courtship and even stranger marriage of Yolande and Countee — as well as its dissolution — as it is reflected in a series of riveting and robustly performed scenes.
We are initially drawn into the story by the passion and the zeal with which the attractive Lunceford aggressively pursues Yolande. Morocco Omari’s imposingly disarming and virile performance as Jimmy may not be in the least nuanced, but seen in the light of his reticent rival, the self-absorbed Countee (played with perhaps just a little too much indifference by Sean Phillips), his presence and the force of his personality give the play some very decisive emotional grounding.
This is good as so much of the action pivots rather too cautiously around Yolande’s and Countee’s marital incompatibility, demonstrably affected by his rather disingenuous attempts to be friendly at best, while he makes no apology for his inferred more intense and meaningful affection for his best friend (unseen).
If anything, the play is even more grounded by the relationship that bonds Yolande with her autocratic father, played with pompous panache by theater veteran Andre De Shields. Shield’s, who made his Crossroads performing debut in 1994 in “Harlem Nocturne” and has returned to direct shows on a number of occasions, has some winning, laugh-inducing moments as he rants his old fashioned notions about love and what a woman should expect in a marriage.
I was particularly disposed to feel deeply for the apparently missing bond between Yolande and her mother, Nina (Marie Thomas), a woman consigned to also living in the shadow of her famous husband. Marie Thomas gives a particularly touching performance as the wife and mother whose fragile mental state is underscored by the memory of a child whose death at infancy she attributes to her husband.
Either it is because Gillian Glasco — as Yolande’s best friend and confidante — has the best lines or because she makes every smart and snappy bon mot count, her vivacity and sparkle raise the pleasure quotient of the play beyond its already totally commendable level.
Chuck Smith, who is a resident director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater and directed “Knock Me a Kiss” for its premiere at Chicago’s Victory Theater as well as the New York production produced by the New Federal Theater, has to be commended for keeping a tight rein on the play’s dramatic situations, as they are dependent upon the many raunchy, insinuating, and sexy curves they take before reaching a solemnly tender resolution.
Anthony Davidson’s set design modestly suggests the study of the Dubois’ Harlem apartment. A downstage bench is enough to suggest other locations, all of which are enhanced by Shirley Prendergast’s lighting. While a collection of fine and flashy 1920s frocks designed by Ali Turn certainly earn our attention, it remains for the well-conceived characters who wear them in this smartly written play to keep our interest as compellingly as they do. Although the play’s title refers to the early Louis Jordan song, it didn’t become a jukebox hit until 1942. You can hear a recording made by the Jimmy Lunceford Band on YouTube.
Knock Me a Kiss, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tickets: $50. Through Sunday, November 4. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.