With less than twenty-four hours until the Ensemble Theatre opened the Regional Premiere of KNOCK ME A KISS, I got to have a brief conversation about the play with its playwright, Charles Smith. During our conversation we discussed the play, which introduces audiences to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois. It exposes the audience to the hardships she faced and endured in search of her own happiness.
Me: What was your inspiration for KNOCK ME A KISS?
Charles Smith: Well, the inspiration came from a different play I was working on. I was working on a play about Marcus Garvey, and during my research on Marcus Garvey and his time here-you know, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois had a huge run in. They were rivals. Philosophical rivals. Social and political rivals-and while doing research about Garvey, I went into Du Bois' life. While exploring Du Bois' life, I found his attitude toward his daughter to be very curious. He seemed to, at times, blame her for the evils of the world and at other times dismiss her. And I started asking people who knew about The Harlem Renaissance and knew about Du Bois about this. I'd say, "What's up with his attitude toward his daughter?" And they'd say, "Well, because of the marriage." So I started doing research on the marriage and realized that he really liked Countee Cullen. The marriage between Countee Cullen and his daughter was really the marriage of Harlem. It was really the beginning of what Du Bois considered to be the Talented Tenth. You know, his own daughter was going to start to populate this sort of race of super Negro. [Laughs] And when the marriage fell apart, he blamed her even though she, I found out later, let him know that Countee Cullen was gay and that's the reason fro the divorce. So, I was impressed by the story and I was impressed by Yolande, W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter. Impressed by her fortitude and impressed by the burden that she decided to shoulder.
Me: What was your writing process like for KNOCK ME A KISS?
Charles Smith: Oh boy, the process! Well, first I had to make sure indeed that Countee Cullen was gay. You know, I didn't want to base a play on a rumor. So, I did a lot of research on the period, and I did a lot of research on Yolande Du Bois and Countee Cullen. Finally, I found a letter that Yolande Du Bois sent her father, W.E.B. Du Bois, from Paris saying that Countee Cullen confessed this to her. So once I got that, I really kind of knew what the play was going to be about. I knew that the child had died and Nina Du Bois blamed W.E.B. Du Bois for the death, and I knew that Yolande was sort of torn between two men. One man had an appetite for life, an appetite for women, and was really hard on her, and that was Jimmy Lunceford. The other man was erudite, sort of reserved, and sort of her father's idea of what a man was. I think that a lot of people understand her dilemma looking at these two men. You know, a lot of us had those two people rolled into one, but sometimes you've got to choose one or the other. She chose erudite. Once I found the evidence, I knew what the play was going to be. Then I sort of forgot about the characters, you know, and started writing about how I felt about what she was up against.
Me: Other recent plays, like Jeff Talbott's THE SUBMISSION, have handled the seemingly present disconnect between the homosexual community and the African-American community. Does KNOCK ME A KISS shed any light on this issue?
Charles Smith: On the disconnect? Well, you know, [Pauses]. Man, see, I don't know if it does or not because I don't know what that disconnect is. I personally don't think that there's a disconnect. I know in some church communities there might be a disconnect, but I grew up on the south side of Chicago. We all knew who, well, maybe not all of the gay men and women in my neighborhood. We may not have known who all of them were. Certainly everybody who was out, we knew who they were, and it wasn't any big deal, you know. I mean, [Laughs], that's just who they were. They were not ostracized. Nobody went after them or anything. I think this is a relatively new phenomenon that was given by our conservative political motivations, trying to drive a wedge between those two communities. I don't think there's a disconnect, and if there is, I don't know if my play sheds light on it. I didn't treat Countee Cullen the way I grew up. I treat it the way I know my community to have pictured it, so... [Laughs]