The M Ensemble opened its production of Knock Me A Kiss at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center on February 6, 2014.
Knock Me A Kiss by Charles Smith is a fictional account inspired by the actual events surrounding the 1928 marriage of W.E.B. Du Bois’s daughter Yolande to one of Harlem’s great poets, Countee Cullen. She agonizes over ther overwhelming devotion to her father, co-founder of the NAACP and publisher of Crisis Magazine, to choose between her passion for jazz bandleader, Jimmy Lunceford and marrying Countee.
Lowell Williams directed a cast that included Andre’ Gainey, Carolyn Johnson, Samuel Umoh, Makeba Pace, Ethan Henry, and Lela Elam.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Black History Month is underway, and Miami’s oldest professional theater company is offering up a historically inspired lesson in romance gone wrong, skewed family values and the private lives of public figures.
Staged by Lowell Williams, the play is set in late 1920s New York during the Harlem Renaissance. It helps to hold that period in your mind as you watch the show unfold because little in Gregory Contreras’ set or Shirley Richardson’s costume design suggests the ‘20s, the most notable exception being the Jazz Age dresses worn by leading lady Makeba Pace.
The most compelling reason to make the long drive to Cutler Bay… is to savor the actors’ work. Henry, who is up for a best actor Carbonell Award, is irresistibly magnetic as Jimmie, a kind of life force whenever he’s onstage. Pace is compelling as a spoiled young woman who winds up sadder but wiser.
Carbonell winner Elam is masterfully funny and provocative as Lenora, Umoh persuasive as the smart and secretive Cullen. If Gainey is rather warm and soft as Du Bois… and Johnson’s Nina is emotionally all over the place, well, that’s how playwright Smith crafted the couple.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Some vibrant performances – one of them pure electricity – rescue M Ensemble’s uneven production of Charles Smith’s intriguing but flawed script about boldface names from the Harlem Renaissance, Knock Me A Kiss.
Ethan Henry has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting actors in the region. As with his title character in M Ensemble’s King Hedley II, Henry vibrates like a tuning fork. From the moment Lunceford dances onto the stage with Yolande, Henry seems to throw an oversized electrical switch to energize a bank of floodlights. His Lunceford exudes a charismatic lifeforce all the time, but doubly so when he is in wooing the woman he loves.
Pace, who is Henry’s real-life wife, is similarly as reliable a hand as a director could hope for. As she did in her aria last season as the agonized wife in King Hedley II, Pace uses her twinkling eyes, warm smile and fierce intelligence to build a Yolande who is both admirable and flawed.
Every Hamlet needs a Horatio to talk to or at least a Thelma Ritter. Few fill that sidekick bill as well as the ever-dependable Lela Elam, who savors every whipsmart wisecrack with a toss of her head and radiates jubilation.
Gainey exudes a warm geniality in almost every role we’ve seen him in. Unfortunately, those qualities don’t jibe with the imposing, fearsome gravitas that this role requires. Smith’s vision of Du Bois is of a man willing to sacrifice every aspect of his life, including personal and familial, to the greater good. Gainey seems just too nice a guy to make that supreme pragmatism plausible
Johnson is incapable of a bad performance, but her tamped down distracted Nina is uneven... Occasionally Johnson gets a protracted reminiscence and then her reverie becomes hypnotic.
Umoh has a tough challenge because Cullen is so stiff and formal around the Du Bois family that he seems one-dimensional and bland. We only see a little charm peek out on a date with Yolande; virtually no emotion slips out until their marriage begins to fray.
A nod is due the costume design by M Ensemble co-founder Shirley Richardson for Yolande’s sequined flapper dress and headband to the elegant bowties and vests of Du Bois and Cullen
Roger Martin reviewed for Miami Artzine:
There’s a lot of good humor in this piece despite it being a history lesson. Lela Elam goes on a wild ride as Lenora, Yolande’s confidante; always willing to help and then some. Ethan Henry is, as usual, the guy who lights up the joint. It’s a different Knock Me a Kiss whenever he’s on stage. And Makeba Pace, who’s in almost every scene, is completely smooth and believable as she plays her arc.
Written by Charles Smith and directed by Lowell Williams the play has a static quality to it, not helped by the laid back performances of André L. Gainey as W.E.B. Du Bois, Carolyn Johnson as his wife, Nina and Samuel Umoh as Countee Cullen.
The M Ensemble presents Knock Me A Kiss at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center throught February 23, 2014.