Theater Review: “Yellowman”
Patricia Alli and KeiLyn D. Jones in “Yellowman.” Photo Credit: Vinnie Gonzalez.
The immutability of your skin color can be as individually distressing as it is socially divisive in Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman,” being presented by Henley Street Theatre at SPARC. A 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama in which intra-racial prejudice between dark-skinned and light-skinned blacks – “yellowman” is the derogatory epithet for the fair-skinned – appears as if it were even more malicious than interracial bigotry between blacks and whites. And, indeed, it can be ferocious in Orlandersmith’s succinct, yet incisive meditation on colorism within race.
Starring Patricia Alli and KeiLyn D. Jones as star-crossed lovers divided by their black skin tones and immured by their abusive family situations, I’m happy – and relieved! – to report that Henley Street Theatre has offered their most uninhibited, yet most unembellished production of their 2011-2012 season under the emotive and brilliant direction of J. Paul Nicholas.
At a short 1 hour and 20 minutes, and with talkbacks following each performance led by a prominent Richmond leader, Nicholas’ production profits from Orlandersmith’s rich, lulling language verbalized through the affecting – but seldom piteous – performances of Alli and Jones.
Commenting on the somewhat rarefied, academic subject matter of colorism – that is, the variability of skin tone within the same race and its associated biases – exposed in “Yellowman,” Nicholas writes in his director’s notes, “It is at once a deeply personal and private love story, and also a broad commentary on a little known but very ugly aspect of American life.”
Ugly, and uglier, it grows. Alma (Patricia Alli) and Eugene (KeiLyn D. Jones) recount memories of this unprepossessing aspect through harrowing, but lyrical monologues – directed mostly at the audience, and washed in Andrew Bonniwell’s understated, shadowy lighting. Both belong to a Gullah community – an African cultural heritage indigenous mostly to South Carolina and Georgia – in which their childhood years and their furtive romance from their adolescence moving into young adulthood have been destabilized by the pernicious forces of colorism.
I’ll assume audiences are familiar with the dramatization of hostile race relations between whites pitted against blacks, and vice versa – indeed, currently this rancorous issue is on stage at the Firehouse Theatre in the production of “Dessa Rose.” But Orlandersmith intends to scrutinize racism through the unfamiliar prism of black-on-black racism, staging this contentious issue through the play’s two characters: Alma who is dark-skinned and voluptuous, and Eugene who is light-skinned and supple – he’s the eponymous “yellowman.”
And encircling them throughout the narrative, Alli and Jones also vividly portray a company of characters, including themselves as children gleefully playing on the playground, and their dysfunctional parents and noxious childhood friends, both of whom are the toxic agents indoctrinating them with their intra-racial hatred and making attempts to tear their love asunder.
“You don’t want to get black,” Alma’s mother – Odelia – scolds her. “Do you think I’d be more handsome if I was high yella like you?” Eugene’s father – Robert – harasses him.
Conclusively, race is no longer only black and white. Instead, according to Orlandersmith, it spans a palette of finer shades within the black community, but the social constructions associated with these nuances have profound – if not, disastrous – effects on issues of black female self-image and male social mobility as personified through the characters of Alma and Eugene, respectively, and more broadly on black family relations and community cohesiveness.
Acted on a spare, tiered wooden platform accessorized with only two brown stools designed by James Ricks, the two actors are mostly physically separated – Alma to upper stage right, and Eugene to lower stage left – throughout the performance suggesting the racial segregation between dark-skinned and light-skinned blacks in their Gullah community.
Only in moments of their romantic passion – in which they narrate their kissing by embracing their hands, or in making love – do they meet at the center of the stage, integrating their love in opposition to their segregated environment, as well as in other sparing moments of narration.
Yet notice how as the two move throughout the performance, Margarette Joyner’s unpretentious costume design suggests that Alma develops the self-confidence necessary to go off to college in New York – she sheds her dresses on stage from a homely orange frock to a delightful purple day dress – but Eugene remains left behind and stagnant – he never changes out of his gray button-down shirt and black slacks – which is ironic since he is often accused of having life handed to him on a silver platter owning to his lighter skin color.
Whatever the moral of the story – especially, overcoming the superficial limitations of skin color or becoming subservient to it – Nicholas’ bare production coupled with Alli’s and Jones’ captivating storytelling reminds us that great performances aren’t commoditized in bells and whistles, but in the profound narratives they unleash.
“Yellowman” runs through June 16 at SPARC. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://henleystreettheatre.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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