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Tuesday, February 4, 2014


As I wait for the beginning of KNOCK ME A KISS, the first impact is the set, masterfully designed by Ron Newell. The wood construction tells a story already of success and an efficacious air. Taking place in the 20's, we await the beginning of the play, successfully absorbed into the atmosphere. It is a good feeling, especially at a matinee. Within the set, we are about to experience an African-American prospective of a political, social, sexual and historical time, beautifully crafted by playwright Charles Smith.  Mr. Smith is familiar to the house of Ensemble, having previously created the plays Free Man of Color and The Gospel According to James. Mr. Smith take us to Harlem in the kinetic era that surrounds 1928, addressing the Du Bois family and the circle of colorful characters that gesticulate for attention.

The story encompasses the vivacious journey of Yolande Du Bois  (Emily Terry), as she navigates being nurtured by a socially demanding father, W.E.B. Du Bois (Edward Swan), and a histrionic splintered mother Nina Du Bois (Pamela Morton). Yolande has a true test when it comes to the gentlemen callers in her life. Jimmy Luncford (Kyle Carthens) who has a talent for music and curling your toes, and Countee Cullen (Dyrell Barnett),  a preppy version of  Harlem Town and Country. Yolanda is aided and abetted by a fabulous confidant Lenora (Tonya Broach). The result is an abacus of emotion, intention, deceit, class, discovery and self empowerment.

Playing Yolande, Emily Terry brings a brilliant and beautiful performance as the main artery of this play. I left feeling like I just been on a long cross country motorcycle ride, clutching a side car that allowed me to watch every emotional element of the journey. Terry's was a tour de force of being at the center of a judging hurricane, but without an eye to rest.  She presents a woman of virtue. She deftly handled scenes of sexual intent, discontent, and a self-actualization process that demands we pay attention as she figures out the expedition and exploration of family, love and decision making. We all take chances. And there is always a consequence.

Jimmy Luncford, a player played by Kyle Carthens, reminds me of Kanye West, before he made it big, and before he took awards away from people. Kyle defines Jimmy with a cool refined buoyant flair, accented by intensity, that was dead on. He is wary of the high strutting W.E.B., but as any artist of the day, maybe being a musician is a scary occupation for a father. We follow him, starting from a place of posing flash and style, to a dramatic quest for love, and eventually settling in success, but romantic resolve. His journey is executed with accomplished talent.

Matching that talent is Dyrell Barnett, infusing Countee Cullen with enough layers that Outback could serve him as a blooming onion. Filled with style and grace, we immediately are impressed by his impeccable taste and refined educated air. Although listening to W.E.B. instruct him on how to find a wife, tends to make you believe he doesn't get out much in the beginning. His character faces many secrets. Some hinted, some self-confessed, and some that are based in survival. Deftly played.

For a moment, I thought Billie Holiday was on stage when I see Tonya Broach as Lenora. But then this fireball of comedic sass and tell-it-like-it-is bravado takes over and makes it her own. Broach embodies her character with a human heart, but a generator of advice and gossip that could be a half time show at the Super Bowl. Skillfully played, Broach supplies the jam, and some comedic antics that are a scream.. But also enables her character to pull back and provide prospective. All of us need a Lenora is our lives, even if at the end, you can't really blame her for what happens, because it is all based in truth.

Mother Du Bois is a complicated mess of sorts. Struggling from an overbearing husband, who calls her "wife", as if that was her only identity, but then uses him as a weapon of guilt against her own daughter. Coping with a loss that has strings attached that are suffocating. Trying to connect with a daughter that does not accept things just to survive. But even medicated with headache powder, her heart is still the center of her being and shines through at beautiful moments during the performance. Pamela Morton handles this character assignment like a pro. Through her tortured, almost Stepford movements, we come to learn so much about her pain, and her love. At the end, Morton delivers a powerful piece of poetic prose.

As W.E.B. Du Bois enters, Edward Swan cuts a fine figure. There would be no doubt that he would appear as "the most interesting man in the world" commercials. His character is the Debbie Downer of the party here.  I mean, who uses math to find a mate. Completely engulfed in "what looks best" and "what is best for the movement of people of color", he is the one who holds the playbook. It seems as if it were the old electronic football game, he would be in the center and all the other players would vibrate around him. Although Swan has a great presence, his delivery of character is not as strong as the others. It doesn't seem that the actor and the character have meshed together as one, and settled into a confident space. But he has enough gusto to make his character push the others to play the game correctly, or be able to do the end around without being flagged by the referee.

Meg Parish does a great job with costumes, especially with Lenora. The lighting bothered me a little bit with the scenes that are upstage. Having actors go out of the light is not the best, but certainly not a deal breaker. but otherwise, Micheal Beyer creates a period ambiance

One of the lasting things that cross my mind about this play, is that you can never go back. That is a tough message to hear, and to reconcile. Director Caroline Jackson Smith has provided an evening of theatre that lets us weigh that message. And that is a beautiful thing to have a part of the play resonate inside you.

Ensemble Theatre is a gem. Artistic Director, Celeste Cosentino,  should be very proud.

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