This week, PJ and I saw two productions at Ohio University, Knock Me a Kiss and The Compleat Female Stage Beauty. Knock Me a Kiss was written by Charles Smith, a professor of playwriting here in the School of Theater, and tells the fictionalized story of W.E.B. DuBois‘s daughter, Yolande, and her short-lived marriage to poet Countee Cullen. It was part of the School of Theater’s regular season. The Compleat Female Stage Beauty, by Jeffrey Hatcher, is about Edward Kynaston, the last actor famous for playing female roles in the Restoration. It was made into a feature film in 2004. I really enjoyed both productions.

Knock Me a Kiss is a really complex examination of race, gender, and sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance. The play revolves around Yolande’s struggling to decide whether she should marry for love or duty. She is in love with musician Jimmy Lunceford, but her father wants her to marry Cullen, a poet frequently featured in DuBois’s magazine, The Crisis. According to DuBois, his daughter’s marriage to Cullen will usher in a new age of racial equality, helping to liberate African Americans from discrimination. Once Yolande has married Cullen, however, she learns that he is more interested in “spending time with” his “friend,” Harold Jackman, than in being with her. Cullen ultimately confesses his homosexual leanings to his wife, causing her to divorce him.

I knew nothing about these figures before seeing the play. A little internet research and conversations with PJ have suggested that Smith has taken license with some of the historical details, but historical accuracy isn’t really the point of this play, it seems to me. Instead, I thought that the play used these events to explore issues of patriarchal power, masculine privilege, and double standards based on gender. Yolande is forced into making a decision she later regrets because her father is able to dominate her and convince her that marrying Cullen is for the greater good. Indeed, according to this play, women pay the greater price for men’s efforts at political change.

One of the things I liked most about the play was its depiction of Cullen’s sexuality. It would have been easy to make this character the villain, to portray him as malevolently using Yolande to hide his sexual orientation. I thought the production did a good job of showing Cullen’s own victimization. In order to receive a fellowship to write in Europe, he needs DuBois’s recommendation. DuBois makes this recommendation contingent on Cullen marrying well. Kevin Vaught does an excellent job of showing his character’s humanity — he’s a complicated character that is both likable and despicable.

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