Thursday, April 24, 2014

Knock Me A Kiss by Charles Smith

L - R Back-row: Keir Thirus, Ashlee Olivia, Countee Cullen
L - R Front-row: Ben Guillory, Toyin Moses, Rosie Lee Hooks

By Joe Straw

The Robey Theatre Company in association The Los Angeles Theatre Center presents Knock me a kiss written by Charles Smith and directed by Dwain A. Perry through May 11th, 2014.

Dwain A. Perry, the director, sat four seats to my right, near the office set of Knock Me A Kiss.  If there is a director within eyesight I’m going to take a peek every now and again to get a reaction, just as I do with other audience members who may enjoy a moment or otherwise.   

First of all, I love going to see the Robey Theatre Company who, by the way, is celebrating their 20th Anniversary.   It is here you will find some of the finest actors working in Los Angeles. 

There are nights when performers hit all the right notes, but that is rare in theatre, which makes it all the more exciting. And it was on this night of outstanding performances where some things require a little discussion.  I’ll have more on that later.

In the very early morning hours of the year 1928, Jimmy Lunceford (Keir Thirus), an up and coming bandleader, is escorting his date, Yolande Du Bois (Toyin Moses), home. Impatiently serenading her until that special moment arrives.  

But, before going in Yolande gives Jimmy a little warning.

“You’re gonna have to be quiet, Jimmy.” – Yolande

Ain’t nobody home. – Jimmy

Jimmy is a man who likes it his way.  This presents a problem immediately when Jimmy wants from his amour.  After a few moments of trying to get through the front door, he enters and sees “swank”. And already he’s got Yolande’s old man figured out, sees that he is a thinking man, a man of brains, and of little heart. 

But all that aside, what Jimmy wants to do is to run his tongue across Yolande’s “sweet plums”.

“Come on and knock me a kiss.” – Jimmy

“My mother’s here.” – Yolande

“ I’ll be quiet.  I swear.  Quieter than a mouse pissing on cotton.” - Jimmy

Yolande’s not fooling around with anyone at her parents home and finds little reason to go back to Jimmy’s rattrap apartment. But Jimmy says he’s got money, produces it, and says they can get a room at a nice hotel.  Yolande’s sees the bands money and protests. 

But, what Yolande really wants from Jimmy now is a proposal of marriage. Jimmy’s not quite up to speed on the marriage proposal thing and says they can get married in the morning after they’ve had a chance to curl each other’s toes.

You can throw that stuff to the side because Yolande want’s it all nice and pretty, a societal wedding, with a first class trip to Paris as a honeymoon all in line with her status.

“You are sounding more and more like your daddy everyday.” - Jimmy

That hits a raw nerve.

Yolande, living her father’s dream, is aware of her social status in the community.  She wants romance and marriage and Jimmy getting down on one knee, but most importantly taking care of her status is her birthright.   

And the noise inside Jimmy’s head thinks about getting married without the frilly stuff Yolande’s throwing his way.  It’s all about the necessary beats with him, the sound he’s trying to make to get Yolande to get on the bus with the band and to travel to Dayton.  But at this point, the night is officially over and knock me a kiss turns out to be a small peck on the lips.  

Meanwhile in the other room Nina (Rosie Lee Hooks) Yolande’s mother comes in having listened to the entire conversation. Nina and Yolande don’t see eye to eye on anything.  In fact they are as different as family members can be.   And it doesn’t help that Yolande is out with a strange man, a musician no less, until one and two in the morning.  

“I haven’t done anything wrong.” – Yolande

“Didn’t say you did.  Just saying that your father might be interested in knowing about this behavior.” – Nina

Nina tells Yolande that her father will be in the morning and Yolande says she needs to get her hair done, buy a new dress, etc., all before she presents herself the following morning.   Those are the sounds of Yolande’s scattered thoughts before they retire for the night.

Later that morning, Countee Cullen (Jason Mimms), is in a meeting with W.E.B. Du Bois (Ben Guillory), and asks for a favor.  He wants Du Bois to write an acknowledgement to a group of people so that he can go to Europe to study as a poet for two years and possibly walk in the footsteps of Shelley and Keats.

W.E.B. Du Bois wants to know how walking in the footsteps of dead European poets is going to benefit the Negro of the United States.

“You mean besides the obvious contribution to my personal growth as a poet?” – Countee

Du Bois emphasis on this meeting suggests that Countee, not being married doesn’t look right, and that he should be looking for a wife. In this regard Du Bois has got a one-track mind.  He believes that Countee should get married and he knows just the person for him, his daughter.   Of course, being a very prolix man, and loving the sound of his voice, it takes him quite a while to get to the point.

But before Du Bois has a chance to ask, his daughter Yolande and his wife Nina interrupt the meeting.  It’s obvious that W.E.B. dotes on Yolande and even has a nickname for her, “Ouchie”.  Still, Nina is not shy about ratting on their daughter being out until two and three in the morning with another young man. 

Yolande downplays her relationship to Jimmy.

“I’m tellin’ ya Daddy, he’s just a friend.  Somebody I met through Lenora.” – Yolande

Yolande says she only went out with him because she was bored, but since Countee is there in the room, she says she would love to go out with him. Sending Nina into a tizzy that proclaims that that Yolande is shameless.  But, it is on this day that Countee asks Yolande out to dinner.

A few days later Yolande is getting ready to go out with Countee with help from her friend Lenora (Ashlee Olivia).  Yolande tell Lenora that she doesn’t care for Jimmy or his lifestyle and that she is interested in Countee.  But Lenora says things are a bit peculiar with Countee and his family. Still Yolande like’s him because he’s a poet, romantic, and that she doesn’t like Jimmy with groping hands, poking around, nasty stuff.

“I don’t know what kind of sex you having but sound like you doing something wrong.” – Lenora

Charles Smith has written a fascinating play about characters trying to find their own voice.  And while others may have different interpretations of the play, the idea of finding your own voice speaks to me. Jimmy Lunceford uses his voice to get his love and to create a sound that will have the money calling. W.E.B Du Bois, a man who has a voice, but uses his to dramatically influence the voices of others, his daughter and the poet. (To silence the voice of the newspaper by a very powerful political figure is a very interesting idea and significant in today’s day and age.) Yolande lives her father’s voice and has yet to touch her own vocal reality. And Nina’s voice has been cut short by her husband with one word, “wife”.  The poet can only express his love on paper without giving the real voiced truth of his affections. It is this mixture of sounds and voices that resonate with me within the play.

Dwain A. Perry, the director, does some very nice work.  But there are elements from this show missing, mostly having to clean up relationship problems and having to define characters to take them to another level. The first scene in the office between Countee and Du Bois needs another layer of action and characterization.  Countee was very passive and we need to see more of the man in this scene. And I wanted a little more creative spirit in the opening of the second act.  It is at this point Yolande is at the end of her emotional rope, needing to confide in her unresponsive mother to find a way to touch base with someone who is not even in the park.  Still she should keep trying.  But, lying on the couch during that scene accomplishes little. (Harold Clurman was clear about having a through line that was concise and creative to give a director a stronger focal point from which to work and with that sets the conflict to a greater dramatic effect.)  Still, this was a very nice job.

Countee Cullen is a poet, and an intellectual, an alumnus of New York University and Harvard, a very interesting man to boot.  But in Jason Mimms portrayal he comes off rather shy uninteresting, hardly a man who can put two words together when it comes to his personal life.  His sexual interest lies elsewhere when we discover his wife leaves him on the second week of their honeymoon and he wants to go off with a male companion to Paris, France.  But we don’t see this character life in Mimms characterization.  Mimms, in the first scene, lets the other character control the scene without giving his perspective or the character’s peculiarities.  In order to set the stage for the later scenes to work, we need to see this in the life of the character.  Still, there was a lot of good work in Mimms performance with only a few things to add.

L - R Toyin Moses, Rosie Lee Hooks, Ben Guillory, Jason Mimms

Ben Guillory has a very distinctive voice as W.E.B. Du Bois.  Du Bois was 5’ 5” and Guillory standing a foot taller takes command of a man who was small but had a very powerful voice. Du Bois had tunnel vision when it came to turning out his vision of the world.  And even when that world collapses he is there putting his positive spin to his voice. Guillory gives a very nice performance.

Nina Du Bois is played by Rosie Lee Hooks.  This is a very interesting characterization, almost sedate but she manages to get her point across no matter how much she is silenced by her overbearing husband and her demanding daughter.   They all think she needs a brain doctor, but what she really needs is to have someone listen to her words.  They are good words that gives the ending a surprising lift.  This is very understated but marvelous role for Hooks.

I’ve seen Toyin Moses who plays Yolande Du Bois in one other production and I enjoyed her performance in both. Yolande is caught in the sound of her father’s world unable to find a way to escape and that is her conflict. There is more to be had in the character of Yolande but finding the thing that defines the character can be tricky and I’m not sure it was found. Getting ready for her date with the poet, trying to communicate with her mother in the beginning of the second act, getting the weight of her marriage off her shoulders as her mother really lays the guilt trip on her about the wedding, the baby, and her wifely duties. All that makes for dramatically strong conflict and should be dealt in a creative way.

Keir Thirus gives a remarkable strong performance as Jimmy Lunceford, a bandleader trying to find his own way, with his own voice, and his own rhythm.  Thirus gives this character a dramatic voice, one of ambition and strength.  The only thing the character hasn’t figured out yet is how to control his out of control thoughts and the way you speak to a sophisticated lady. Still, Thirus gave a astonishing performance.

Ashlee Olivia is terrific as Lenora, the friend who cannot tell a lie and lets it all hang out when it comes down to human nature. Lenora is the connect to things that are love. She understands the realities of what a woman and a man wants and she is happy to express her view whether they want it or not.  Lenora just hangs around, in the slight case, that someone should become free.  Olivia gives a marvelous, funny, and nuanced performance that should not be missed.

Jovan Adepo, Petal’d Avril, and Shon Fuller are understudies who did not perform on the night I was there.

Tom Meleck was responsible for the terrific Scenic Design, a two level set, in a Harlem brownstone and I also enjoyed the onstage projections of New York.

Also Naila Aladdin Sanders was the Costume Designer for which the characters were marvelously dressed to the period.

Other member of this crew are as follows:

Production Stage Manager – John Freeland, Jr.
Assistant Stage Manager – Melvin Ishmael Johnson
Lighting Design – Sammie Wayne IV
Music/Sound Design – Gilbert Glenn Brown
Prop Master – Melvin Ishmael Johnson
Graphic Design – Kathie Foley-Meyer
Production Photographer – Tomoko Matsushita
Publicist – Phillip Sokoloff
Development Director – Judith Bowman
Robey Office Manager – Marti Newbold
Lighting Technician – Josia Davis
Projection Technician – Corwin Evans
Multimedia Consultant – Fritz Davis
Set Construction Team – Colin Beck, Mark L. Colbenson, Matthew Greene, Christopher Ryan Litten
Multimedia Elements provided by: digital theatre technologies

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves love, jazz, and the right to free expression.

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