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An interesting tale of truth or fiction–“KNOCK ME A KISS” at Ensemble


The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement which spanned the period from about 1919 to 1929.  It was the literary era when members of the Great African American Migration, Negroes who had moved into the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, asserted themselves in art, poetry, literature and theatre.  Participants included James Wendell Johnson,  Cleveland’s Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. 

Parallel to the Renaissance was the Niagara Movement, which stressed civil rights, increased political representation, and integration.  A rollout of this was the NAACP, and growth of the African intellectual elite.  These were Negroes who were graduates of Harvard, NYU and other prestigious universities.  They included the likes of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author and editor. He was the first African American to earn a PHD.   He received the degree from Harvard, a school he attended with the financial help of the integrated membership of the Massachusetts church he attended.  As an earlier supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, and a believer in proper etiquette and ethical actions, he insisted that “artists recognize their moral responsibilities and remember that a black artist is first of all a black artist.”

In spite of his fame, not much is factually known about the poet, Countee Cullen.  He was a man of great definitive poetry, but revealed little about himself in his writing or speaking.  Some reliable information about him emerged after 1918 when at about age 9 he was adopted by Reverend and Mrs. Cullen.  The circumstances of the adoption were always veiled with questions about the Reverend and Countee’s relationship.  His poem, “The Shroud of Color,” is considered to be the landmark of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cullen’s marriage to Yolande Du Bois in 1928 was the Negro social event of the decade.  They divorced in 1930 in a shroud of secrecy.  It was rumored that Cullen was homosexual and his relationship with Harold Jackman, “the handsomest man in Harlem,” was a major factor in the divorce.  Another cause may have been Yolande’s friendship with Jimmy Luncfore, a leading Harlem bandleader who, along with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, drew mass crowds of whites to the Cotton Club.  Noted for the Luncfore two-beat rhythm, he was long rumored to be involved with Yolande.

Charles Smith’s semi-fictional “KNOCK ME A KISS,” which is now being staged at Ensemble Theatre, melds the lives of W. E. B. Du Bois, Cullen, Yolande Du Bois, and Luncfore, with the Harlem Renaissance.  Taking  place in the Harlem home of Du Bois in 1928, the story discusses the on-going African American conflicts of the time, the courting and marriage of Cullen and Yolande, as well as Yolande’s relationship with Luncfore.

The production, under the direction of Caroline Jackson Smith, is effective.  The story unfolds well.  Ron Newell’s realistic setting helps develop the plot. Peg Parish’s costumes are era correct.  The acting is generally on-target.

Emily Terry develops in Yolande De Bois a clear image of a young woman who is driven by her devotion to her famous and fastidious father, but is conflicted between her personal desire for a relationship.  First there is the flashy Luncfore.  The alternative, her father’s choice , Cullen.  Marriage to the latter will create a desirable blending of negro politics and the arts.

Dyrell Barnett is excellent as the reticent, yet talented Countee Cullen.   He walks the fine line between honesty and half-truths with skill.

Kyle Carthens reeks “playah” as the lustful Jimmy Luncfore.  He gives just the right levels of sensuality and driven-desire, to create a real person.

Both Tonya Broach as Lenora, Yolande’s best friend, and Pamela Morton, as Nina Du Bois, Yolande’s mother, are effective.

Edward Swan, portraying W. E. B. Du Bois, gives a surface level performance, stumbling over lines and never creating a real personage.

Capsule judgment:  “KNOCK ME A KISS” is a well- conceived script that gives a revealing view of the Harlem Renaissance and the changing picture of American Negroes in the early 1900s.  It gets an effective and involving performance at Ensemble.

“KNOCK ME A KISS” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through February 23, 2014.  For tickets go to or 216-321-2930

Special treat:  From 6:30 to 7 :30 at the Friday and Saturday performances of “KNOCK ME A KISS,” “Harlem Jazz Receptions” & Open-Mic Poetry! sessions will be held.  They are free to ticket holders.