Theater Review: “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” – A Refreshing Reflection on Black Love
By Olivia Sutton
The theme may be Black love, but the dramatist is too smart not to invite all of us to consider (or perhaps even reconsider) our personal definitions of what love means and how that changes the ways we relate to each other.
K-I-S-S-I-N-G by Lenelle Moïse. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Staged by Front Porch Arts Collective and The Huntington at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, through April 2, with digital access to the filmed performance available until April 16.
We all know the grade school taunt we chanted as kids to embarrass two classmates who clearly “liked” each other: “John and Sally sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”. I too was subjected to that teasing sing-song growing up, and came to loathe it (among other things, back in those days). Now, a little over 20 years later, I have decided to face those early memories of embarrassment. Maybe look back at them … with humor. Maybe even fondly. What made the change? A viewing of the “date-night comedy and love letter to our city” that is K-I-S-S-I-N-G by Boston poet and playwright Lenelle Moïse.
Directed by Dawn M. Simmons, the script is the first collaboration between the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company here in Boston, and the Huntington. Founded on core values of cultural inclusion, community advancement, and racial equity, the Front Porch strives to be a home for Black artists and communities to share their perspectives and experiences through performing arts, and to create stories that reflect the city’s diversity. This season, the theme is “Black Joy and Love,” and K-I-S-S-I-N-G marvelously exemplifies that theme. Its excellent cast is led by Regan Sims (Lala), along with Elliot Norton Award–winner Sharmarke Yusuf (Dani), Ivan Cecil Walks (Albert), Patrese D. McClain (Dot, Lala’s mother), James Ricardo Milord (Jack, Lala’s father) and Bobby Cius (Neighbor).
The story centers on Lala, a quirky and artistic teenage girl whose humble beginnings included near death as a baby, in a neighborhood people usually think twice about venturing into, unless you already live there. We follow her journey as she navigates a love triangle between fraternal twins, family dynamics driven by divorced parents, responsibility as a caretaker and older sibling, and figuring out what she truly desires along the way. Throughout the play, we see the ups and downs of a budding romance and teen angst, inspired by Moïse’s personal experiences growing up in Cambridge. The theme may be Black love, but the dramatist is too smart not to invite all of us to consider (or perhaps even reconsider) our personal definitions of what love means and how that changes the ways we relate to each other.
We’re shown the more complicated sides of Black love through the emotional struggles of Albert (played by Walks) and Dot (played by McClain). Albert has to deal with the overweening example of his brother and the fear that his therapy sessions inspire about his deep insecurities. His summer fling with Lala is an attempt to escape the pain and find validation. Dot is a single mother who has had to deal with post-partum depression, rejection from her family, and divorce. These setbacks took a considerable toll on her mental well being and have clearly inhibited her ability to be present with her daughter. In the end, both troubled characters develop to the point that they learn to receive Lala’s love and to be able to reciprocate.
Another challenging aspect of Black love, one that is rarely confronted in American theater, is sexuality. Dani (played by Yusuf), “the golden boy” brother, is one of Lala’s love interests. But his love for her is complicated by his uncertainty about his orientation. This unexpected twist is where Moïse’s skills as a storyteller become particularly evident: she draws you deeper into the story by engaging you in continually wondering “what would you do?” Only the best writers make you want to give advice to their characters. Love can be surprising — not always in the way you hope — and caring becomes a test of your strength. How much will (or can) I give of myself to maintain this bond? Dani’s gradual development, his dawning realization of what he feels about himself, reflects the ambiguities of modern relationships among teenagers of color. Needless to say, this perspective on teen romance is often left out of the public conversation. Gender and sexual identity are now being appreciated for what they always have been — fluid. Static, conventional ideas of love are being questioned for the sake of being true to the mysteries of human desire. Yusuf’s character helps us understand that transformation, but it is rarely acknowledged. Among other things, K-I-S-S-I-N-G offers a gentle nudge to remember, honor, and extend love to the queer kids in the Black community.
K-I-S-S-I-N-G offers a more casual, quirkier approach to Black love than what you see on cable TV. And that is welcome. Theatrically, the Huntington Theatre Company co-production with the Front Porch Arts Collective is solid: the all-important music selection is well curated by sound designer Anna Drummond, and scene designer Jason Ardizzone-West has come up with apt visuals. The costumes, courtesy of Dominique Fawn Hill, marvelously showcase the personality of each character.
Olivia Sutton is a graduate of Boston College with a BA in Linguistics. Currently she is pursuing a Masters in Journalism at Boston University. She is a contributing writer for the Arts Fuse focusing on food, wine, and the performing arts.