Sucker Punch

The swanky brownstone interior that Black Theatre Troupe scenic designer Michael Jones has created for Knock Me a Kiss is some kind of triumph. Jones' set -- filled with overstuffed furniture; pounds of dark, shiny wood; even an imposing crystal chandelier -- is glamorous but not ostentatious, and telegraphs a message that, while we're in 1920s Harlem, we're among the wealthy and influential.

Director Robyn Allen has filled Jones' set with superb actors, several of whom turn in performances as worthy as any you'll see locally. Too bad Knock Me a Kiss is such a dull play. Charles Smith's chatty two-act tells the true story of a love triangle involving Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of activist W.E.B. Du Bois; her husband-to-be, poet Countee Cullen; and jazz musician Jimmy Lunceford. Its huzzah is conventional and unsurprising, even to anyone who didn't already know that Cullen was a homosexual involved in a marriage of convenience. The problem isn't that Smith has given his people too little to do, but that he hasn't given them much to hide. Both Yolande's mother, Nina Du Bois, and her husband Countee have things to hide -- secrets that, in an age of flappers and Prohibition, were dark, threatening, ruinous. But the whole "gentleman caller with a forbidden secret" motif is difficult to make interesting to contemporary audiences, even those who are willing to reflect on a more conservative era, and Allen and her fine cast can't overcome Smith's stale premise.

Smith has other agendas here. He wants us to ponder whether consequential people -- artists, politicians, leaders -- can also be whole people. What cost, Smith asks, do our leaders pay to improve the lives of their subjects? If only he'd found a more compelling way to pose this question than wrapping it in such a predictable, '70s-movie-of-the-week revelation: that boy poet Countee Cullen married a famed activist's daughter to hide the fact that he was gay. Ho-hum.

Allen brings plenty in the way of inventive blocking and helps her actors make Smith's long, stuffy discussions more absorbing with interesting bits of business and snatches of song. Of the women, Acasia Wilson's Yolande is most engaging, although not even Wilson's fine acting can overcome the role's whiney nature. Kwane Vedrene gives an unpretentious turn as the loutish Lunceford, and, as usual, Mike Traylor's performance is faultless. In his hands, Mr. Du Bois -- a man who would promote his daughter's marriage to a man who ultimately can't love her -- is something other than a monster.

Despite some fine acting, Knock Me a Kiss is a play that needs some complications to keep it from ending before it begins. Unfortunately, those complications aren't there, and the result is a longish evening spent in the company of some very nice acting and little else.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela