The playground rhyme begins with two people sitting in a tree and spells out what comes next. It’s a playful and youthful rhyme about that first kiss that generates all kinds of emotions some sweet and loving others awkward and embarassing. Lenelle Moïse’s play K-I-S-S-I-N-G is a love story but not a pink and blue bubble letter love story. It isn’t a young adult little “l” love story either despite half of the main characters being a young 16. K-I-S-S-I-N-G is a whole ball of yarn kind of love story that is wound around itself into a neat familiar, intertwined ball of spun roving. Playwright, Lenelle Moïse, takes that yarn, that story of love, and carefully untwists it until we’re left with a puffy amorphous cloud-like mass of soft roving again. Something that feels familiar and soft but is also in its raw form.
When I review a performance, I try to read as little as possible before I see it. Even if I had read about K-I-S-S-I-N-G, I’m not sure I would have been prepared for the opening scene, which grabs you by the throat and punches you in the gut in less than three minutes. For any parent in the audience, the opening scene reverberates through you to the core. Despite having the wind knocked out of you, the play has a lightness and familiarity to it; it is about love after all. K-I-S-S-I-N-G is a beautifully told coming of age story about being in love, falling in love, romantic love, physical love, and everything in between.
Some things can be deep without being heavy, but it isn’t always easy to portray that. Moïse taps into some of our greatest insecurities when it comes to love and relationships but also those times we let loose, dance, and laugh. She had us in tears, laughing out loud, and sucking our teeth in disapproval. I was sitting in between two very different groups of people: older white audience members, and young college aged students of a variety of races. Everyone enjoyed the play and felt a connection to the story and characters maybe not at the same time and in the same way, but the connections were there regardless of race and age of the audience members. We all know love is complicated, but stories often focus on the superficial complications of a love story. The way K-I-S-S-I-N-G is written, while the play includes tensions regarding race, gender roles, motherhood, otherness, wealth, poverty, selective mutism, sexuality somehow they are all undertones to a simpler story about connection and seeing life (and love) through one another’s eyes. The play is poetic in its cadence. When you read a really good poem, by the end the meaning just falls into place and leaves you lost in thought. K-I-S-S-I-N-G comes together in the way a poem does.
I can’t mention a Huntington Theater play without also mentioning the sets and design. I loved how art and music were central to the love story between Lala and Dani. The projections of art and painting throughout the play gave it even more vibrancy (literal and figurative). The Huntington’s sets are always creative and this one reminded me of an open book with the pages splayed but as it turned you would find a new setting or what felt like an illustration in a book. The clothing and costumes told a rich story of different neighborhoods and the societal “costumes” that we all wear that define our roles.
While half the cast were portraying 16 year olds teetering between childhood and whatever version of adulthood comes next, at times these characters seemed older. It may have been intentional because often our children are wise beyond their years. Regan Sims was fabulous as Lala. Lala was one thread that connected all the people in K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Sims’ character was experiencing the nittiest and grittiest parts of love from a mother who struggled with love to seeking love herself. When I saw K-I-S-S-I-N-G the role of Dani was played, superbly, by Bobby Cius. The relationship between Dani and Lala is sweet, smart, real and imperfect. Albert, played by Ivan Cecil Walks was suave and playful but as the play progressed we were invited a little deeper into Albert’s world and see beyond his player persona to the source of his imperfect self love. Love isn’t just for the young ones. The complexities of adult relationships is a big part of this love story too. Adult love and relationships doesn’t have much more clarity than teen love all grown up. There are just as many missed connections and insecurities in adult relationships. The secondary roles of Dot and Jack who are Lala’s parents are secondary in stage time and lines only perhaps. Patrese D. McClain’s Dot is larger than life familiar character that somehow shows the messiness of complicated motherhood without losing the audience’s love and respect. She’s not a particularly good mother but she’s not a caricature of a bad mother either. Jack, played by James Milord, is the kind of imperfect father you often see, but like McClaine’s Dot, he is familiar but better. Lenelle Moïse takes stereotypical stories of love that we all know and chisels out more refined, complex and real characters on each end of these relationships. Even the neighbor, played by Adrian Peguero was a familiar character but little details brought him out of just a tertiary role and connected his character just as strongly to the theme of love as any other.
I’m white and probably just a little bit older than the characters Dot and Jack. Why does this matter? Well, K-I-S-S-I-N-G is performed by the Front Porch Arts Collective which is a Black theatre company. This play is in part here to at The Huntington, in Boston, to celebrate Black joy and love. I won’t ever know what it feels like to be Black, but I do know two very important things:
- I could connect easily with the themes of this play. The stories of love and heartbreak were universal. Does that mean I could connect to every theme and emotion presented on stage? No. I don’t think that anyone can in any given performance. It does mean I could get a peek at some realities that I will never experience myself.
- White theatre and white audiences have never been and will never be as rich as they could be. Eurocentric theatre and performance has a place in history, but it is way beyond time to change the narrative. I want to be in a diverse audience. I want to see diverse theatre. I want to hear Black voices. I want to see Black points of view. I want to see all the stories with all the characters the good, the bad, the heartwarming, the heartbreaking, the evil, the good, the rich, and the poor depicted in more than one colour, from more than one perspective. We need to create space for theatre like this and the partnership between the Front Porch Arts Collective and the Huntington is a great start.
K-I-S-S-I-N-G has in-person performances: March 3 – April 2, 2023 including evenings and matinees. Digital performances will be accessible from March 27th through April 16th. The play is about 2 hours including one intermission.
Tickets are available online at huntingtontheatre.org
• by phone at 617-266-0800;
• or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston
Select discounts apply:
• $10 off: season ticket holders
• $30 “35 Below” tickets for patrons 35 years old and younger (valid ID required)
• $20 student and military tickets (valid ID required)