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.

The other actors were also very good. Ashley Henderson as Yolande was excellent, as was David Toney as W.E.B. DuBois. My favorite performance, however, was Tyler Rollinson as Lunceford. We recently saw Rollinson in the School of Theater’s production of Spring Awakening. While he was good in that part, he was great as Jimmie. I think it’s especially difficult for an actor to convey sexual desire on stage without coming across as either unintentionally pornographic or awkward. Rollinson did a great job with this aspect of his character. I also liked the charisma he brought to the role. Finally, one of my former students, Dionne Atchison, had a smaller, but important role in the production as Yolande’s friend, Lenora. She too was great.

The play’s direction was a little awkward for me in places. In particular, it was difficult for the actors to use the sets effectively at times. While I thought the set was great, especially when considering that the student designers need the practice, the actors sometimes disappeared into the set when they shouldn’t have. This was especially true when the direction required them to stand in the back of the stage, in the DuBoises’ dining room.

But this is a very minor criticism of the production, which was good all around. This isn’t the best production I’ve seen here in Athens, which was surely the School’s production of Samuel Beckett’s short plays a few years ago, or even the best production directed by OU professor Shelley Delaney, who did a magnificent Laramie Project a couple of years ago, but it is definitely worth seeing. I really enjoyed it.

Even better was the graduate student production of The Compleat Female Stage Beauty. This work definitely plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. I’ve taught the movie a couple of times and like the script; ultimately, I don’t mind the liberties it takes with such facts as rearranging when Charles II met Nell Gwyn or the Duke of Buckingham’s sexuality. These rearrangements work fine. (I do, however, object to the play’s construction of Sir Charles Sedley as a fop; he just wasn’t one.)

Since this was a student production, I had no idea what to expect. Indeed, I’ve never been to one of these productions before. We had dinner beforehand with our friend, who is on the faculty of the School of Theater. The three of us then went to the play, which was fabulous. I really liked and admired almost everything about this production.

As the audience filtered into the theater before the production, orange girls sold their wares just as they would have in the Restoration theater of the 1660s. These actresses (and eventually most of the other actors from the play) did a great job of setting the mood and interacting with the audience. It was a great way to start.

Since the production was student-run, everything was done as inexpensively as possible. Wigs were made out of Styrofoam peanuts, costumes were sometimes constructed out of plastic sheets, and sets were kept to a minimum — a small bed, a desk, and a few stools. I cannot say how impressed I was with these students’ creativity. Their ability to use their small budget to maximum effect was fantastic. To some degree, this play is about the magic and power of the theatrical experience. I thought these students were able to achieve that magic really well, transforming Styrofoam and plastic into Restoration stages, palaces, and most importantly bedrooms.

The actors were equally great. Matt Cleaver was pitch perfect as Ned Kynaston. It’s a difficult role that moves from extreme effeminacy to normative masculinity. I especially liked his physical transformation — he did a good job of mimicking feminine gestures and movements in the first part of the play and more masculine ones later. Kristin Shirilla also did a good job as Nell Gwyn. Hers is a great comic role, and Shirilla plays it well.

The other performers were also strong actors, but I did object to one aspect of the production — the male characters, Charles II, the Duke of Buckingham, and Sir Charles Sedley, are all portrayed as rather foppish. Literary works of the period suggest that these men were anything but foppish. Since my work is, in part, about masculinity and sexuality in the Restoration period, I wish the production had represented them a more accurately. But this certainly doesn’t stand in the way of enjoying the play.

I don’t want to sound like a raving maniac (or that I’m maniacally raving), but I was really impressed with this production. It was better than some professional productions I’ve seen. I hope the students are really proud of themselves. They’ve done a great job.

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