A distinctly New York play finally lands in the city when Knock Me A Kiss, by playwright Charles Smith, begins previews Thursday in its Off-Broadway premiere at the New Federal Theatre on the Lower East Side.
Leading the cast, Tony Award nominee Andre De Shields said the role of W.E. B. Du Bois presented a great and satisfying surprise. “The role is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s tragic king, Lear, due to Du Bois’ inability to be spontaneous, his Ptolemaic need to be the center of his self-crafted universe, and his controlling relationship with his daughter, Yolande,” said De Shields. “Those similarities afforded me the opportunity to mine the tragic elements of Du Bois’ character.”
The year is 1928, and the daughter of America’s foremost black intellectual, Du Bois, is just one month away from marrying a young poet, Countee Cullen, whose work was considered one of the pinnacles of the New Negro movement, which we now know as the Harlem Renaissance.
The marriage marked the height of the renaissance and was viewed as the perfect union of African-American talent and beauty. It would unfold during the apex of a cultural phenomenon, which through intellect, literature, art, and music challenged the era’s pervasive racism and stereotypes, and redefined how America and the world perceived African-Americans.
What could go wrong?
“I want the audience, after seeing this play, to investigate these characters and dig deeper into the life of W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and the Harlem Renaissance,” said Chuck Smith, the Chicago-based, Emmy winning director of the play and one of its producers. “I want viewers to see what’s changed, and get more involved in our culture. They should know that the lifestyle of affluent black Americans is not that much different than anyone else,” Smith said.
The play opens as jazz bandleader, Jimmy Lunceford, woos a willing but skittish Yolande Du Bois, who insists that she and Lunceford be married in a manner befitting her stature. She tells her friend, Lenora, “I want to touch and kiss and all he wants to do is hump and bump.”