Cast of Knock Me A Kiss
(top l-r) Keir Thirus, Ashlee Olivia and Jason Mimms
(seated l-r) Ben Guillory, Toyin Moses and Rosie Lee Hooks
By Darlene Donloe
‘I like cake, And no mistake. But, baby, if you insist, I'll cut out cake, Just for your sake. Baby, come on, Knock me a kiss. I like pie. I hope to die. Just get a load of this, When you get high, Doggone the pie. Baby, come on, Knock me a kiss’.
Those are the opening lines to the song, Knock Me A Kiss, which was recorded by several artists over the years including B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa and Jimmie Lunceford, who recorded it in 1942.
Charles Smith’s play, Knock Me A Kiss, currently enjoying a successful run at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through May 4, is loosely taken from that song of the swing era. The song is referenced by Lunceford’s character in the play.
The Robey Theatre production, which is a Southern California premiere engagement, is, thus far, one of the best plays of the season.
Directed crisply and fluidly by Dwain A. Perry and starring an exceptional ensemble that includes Robey Theatre Co-Founder Ben Guillory and veteran actress Rosie Lee Hooks, Knock Me A Kiss tells the story of the failed marriage between NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande, and popular Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. The play is a fictionalization based on actual people and events.
(l-r) Toyin Moses and Jason Mimms
The show takes place in 1928, when, Jimmie Lunceford (Keir Thirus), a rising bandleader at the time, was dating Yolande (Toyin Moses). Wanting to take the relationship further and even proposing marriage, Lunceford is kicked to the curb by Yolande, who wants to marry someone more befitting her social and political stature. Enter the single and eligible Countee Cullen (Jason Mimms) a refined, respected, handsome, educated and popular man-about- town. The impending nuptials between the two powerhouses is considered the social event of the season. The first of its magnitude, the union is deemed Black American royalty at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
After the marriage, things between a free-spirited Yolande and the reserved Countee quickly begin to unravel. When Countee reveals he has affections for someone else, Yolande is heartbroken, then devastated once she learns with whom.
Smith has written a wonderful, juicy and captivating script about love, sacrifice, betrayal, jazz, rivalry, ambition, acceptance and the social graces. The dialogue is brisk, witty, refreshing and feels authentic. The play is both dramatic and comedic, which actually works perfectly for some scenes – most notably when Lunceford discovers Yolande is seeing another man. If you have any problems with the ‘N’ word be warned that the word flows freely by the Lunceford character. Although W.E.B Du Bois is obviously a central character, Smith’s play isn’t so much about his genius and accomplishments so much as it is about his daughter, Yolande.
Perry has assembled a cast that is worthy of Smith’s words. With no weak link in the chain, Perry directs a show that flows with an effortless pace.
Keir Thirus, as the always-ready-for-a-party Jimmie Lunceford, nearly steals the show with his easy cadence, good looks, charm, clever repartee and resolute intention.
Ben Guillory gives a strong performance as the conservative and sure-footed activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Both the dialogue and Guillory reveal Du Bois’ shortcomings as both a husband and as a father. He’s a man willing to gamble away his daughter’s happiness for the cause, or what he deems is the better good.
(l-r) Toyin Moses and Ashlee Olivia
Rosie Lee Hooks is unforgettable as Nina Du Bois. Giving her character meekness and naivete, Hooks leaves room for Nina’s strength and savvy to shine through.
Jason Mimms gives a steady performance playing Countee Cullen as both a ladies man and a man’s man.
Ashlee Olivia is a brilliant and hilarious standout as Lenora, Yolande’s flashy and worldly friend.
Toyin Moses shines brightly as a sturdy, but complex Yolande, who eventually becomes a lonely soul. Marching through life as the confident, devoted daughter of one of the country’s first black public intellectuals, Yolande tries to play both ends against the middle. While she desires the attention of a financially strapped, but always swangin’ musician like Lunceford, she longs for the status of a scholar like Cullen. To her surprise, she finds she can’t have her cake and eat it to. Although she thinks she knows what she wants, she’s left perplexed once she actually gets it.
All the pieces come together in this production.
Knock Me A Kiss is a sturdy enough story that is hitting on all cylinders.
Knock Me A Kiss debuted in Chicago and was subsequently produced in Cleveland, Houston, For Worth, Miami, New York, Sacramento, and at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.
Knock Me A Kiss, written by Charles Smith and directed by Dwain A. Perry, stars Ben Guillory, Rosie Lee Hooks, Jason Mimms, Toyin Moses, Ashlee Olivia and Keir Thirus.
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.
LOUIS JORDAN’S KNOCK ME A KISS:
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Knock Me A Kiss gets an E (excellent).
Knock Me A Kiss, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 Spring St., Los Angeles, 8 p.m., Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun. through Sun., May 4. $10-$30; (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org