Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe presents ‘Knock Me A Kiss’
Societal conventions during the late 1920s were such that even the daughter of a visionary Civil Rights leader cannot escape the expectations of proper dating behavior, marriage to the right kind of man, and forsaking a career in favor of raising a family of one’s own. Such is the world of Yolande DuBois, only daughter of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading philosopher and anti-segregationist activist. She’s just begun to enjoy her life and is dating the not-yet-famous band leader Jimmy Lundesford, when the reality of life’s expectations sinks in: Her father is W.E.B. DuBois, and life among the black elite makes it difficult to accept just any marriage proposal. Enter Countee Cullen – respected poet and longtime family friend – who is willing to embrace a young woman’s desires for personal freedom as long as she honors a modest proposal. Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss tackles the question: When is personal happiness more important than the sacrifices, lies, and deferred dreams of a family trying to make the world a better place?
Knock Me A Kiss had its world premiere in January 2000 at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading African-American intellectual, sociologist, writer, and activist, was born William Edward Burghardt in 1868 in Great Barrington, Mass. He grew up in a mostly European American town and attended fully integrated schools. In 1885 he moved to Nashville, TN to attend Fisk University, where he had his first experience with Jim Crow Laws. After earning a B.A. degree, he entered Harvard University to further his studies, but was faced with another challenge: he wasn’t permitted to remain on campus past 6:00 p.m. After much persistence, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Du Bois studied with some of the most important social thinkers of his time and then embarked upon a 70-year career that combined scholarship and teaching with lifelong activism in liberation struggles.
Du Bois published a landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, which concluded that racism was a major cause of poverty and negative social conditions in many of America’s black communities. He coined the phrase “the talented tenth,” a term that described the likelihood of one in 10 black men becoming leaders of their race. He also authored the first significant study of the slave trade. As a civil rights activist, he was a founder of the Niagara Movement, the Pan African Conference Movement, and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People. His work as editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis made him the voice of black American political interests as well as the recorder of the evolution of the black struggle for freedom and justice in the first half of the 20th century.
A production of Knock Me A Kiss at the 2013 National Black Theater Festival included in its playbill some little known information about Du Bois that is relevant to the play:
As remarkable as he was a scholar, writer, intellectual and activist, Du Bois was challenged as a social being. While he was a passionate advocate for justice and freedom for black people, especially the poor and oppressed, he was also a Victorian elitist of the highest order. He was an equally passionate defender and promoter of the rights of women. Yet, in his personal relations with women, he left a lot to be desired. His first wife Nina was little more than a trophy wife who enjoyed few rights except the honor of being his occasional public companion. An adulterer with an at times insatiable sexual appetite, he aggressively pursued the companionship and carnal pleasure of numerous other women. Yet the Victorian in him disapproved of his daughter’s choice of a musician as her future husband. He subsequently asserted his right to choose the man she should marry to meet his class and status aspirations.
In 1961 Du Bois settled in Ghana to work on an encyclopedia of the African Diaspora. He died there in 1963 at the age of 95.
YOLANDA DU BOIS
Du Bois’ biographer, David Levering Lewis, described Yolanda as “self-indulgent, underachieving, uncertain, chronically overweight, and often ill.” While a student at Fisk University, she met and fell in love with James Melvin Lunceford, the future and accomplished jazz band conductor of the 1930s. Her father was opposed to having “a jazz musician with an undistinguished family background as a son-in-law.” So, Yolanda broke off her engagement to Lunceford and married Countee Cullen. After this short-lived marriage, she spent 35 years in Baltimore, Maryland, teaching history and English and directing the drama club at one of the city’s black public high schools. Yolande’s second marriage to Arnett Williams produced one daughter, Du Bois Williams.
Countee Cullen, born in 1903, was recognized as an award-winning poet in his high school years. When his paternal grandmother and guardian died in 1918, he moved into the home of the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of Harlem’s largest congregation. While in high school he won a city-wide poetry competition. He went on to attend New York University, where he won another poetry prize and burst on the scene as one of the most talented poets of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1925. That same year, Cullen released his highly acclaimed debut volume of poetry, Color, and then entered Harvard University to attain a master’s degree.
During the next four years Cullen reached his zenith. A celebrated young man about Harlem, he had published several books of his own poems and a collection of poetry he edited. He was known for writing “white” verse in the style of Keats and the British Romantics.
Cullen said that he wanted to be known as a poet, not a “Negro poet.” This did not affect his popularity, although some Harlem Renaissance writers interpreted this to mean that he wanted to deny his race. A reading of his poetry reveals this view to be unfounded. In fact, his many of his poems have racial themes. Cullen expounded his view in the Brooklyn Eagle (Feb. 10, 1924):
If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it. But that is another matter.
The year 1928 was a watershed one for Cullen. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Paris and married Nina Yolande Du Bois; the marriage ended in divorce in 1930. Cullen continued to write and publish after 1928 but his works were no longer universally acclaimed. His poetic output diminished and, in 1934, he took a position teaching French at a junior high school. He also penned a satirical novel, One Way to Heaven, which received mixed reviews. In 1935 he became the first African-American writer in the 20th century to translate and publish the classical Medea. He also became a children’s author and playwright. Cullen remarried in 1940.
2012 National Black Theater Festival playbill