Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 23, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Yellowman’

That play was really rife with life." As I left

McCarter Theater after Dael Orlandersmith’s "Yellowman," I

overheard these words exchanged by an elderly couple as they gingerly

made their way down the theater’s stone steps. While this casual

little

summation of the play didn’t seem profound at the time, the more I

thought about it, the more it seemed to grow in poignancy.

At its core, "Yellowman" is very definitely a play about

racism

— in this case, internal racism. "High-yellow" is a

derogatory

term used within the African-American community to differentiate

between

persons of light and dark skin. But while Orlandersmith’s play firmly

dramatizes the negative affects racism plays in the lives of its

African-American

characters, it manages to avoid being simply didactic or preachy.

Instead, we are offered a living landscape of rich storytelling and

deftly crafted characters, told with a language soaked with sonorous

phrasings and cadences.

Initially commissioned by McCarter and developed at the Sundance

Theater

Lab in Utah, "Yellowman" will be on McCarter Theater’s Second

Stage through Sunday, January 27.

"Yellowman" begins its story on a playground in coastal South

Carolina in the early 1970s. Alma (played by playwright Dael

Orlandersmith)

and Eugene (Howard W. Overshown) are two children united by their

enthusiasm for Batman, the Monkees, and the simple thrill of running

as fast as they can in the sticky southern heat. As they mature, Alma

and Eugene’s relationship develops through the myriad changes brought

on by adolescence and young adulthood.

But lurking behind their youthful innocence is the internal racism

that defines much of their world. Eugene’s darker-skinned father

sneers

at his son’s light complexion. Alma is belittled by her mother and

made to feel ugly and cursed for having a large body and such dark

skin. Alma and Eugene struggle to somehow build their self-worth

independently

from the insidious bigotry that would assign them to a place in the

world with only limited opportunities.

Alma actively resists these external limits and decides to attend

college in New York. Intoxicated by the excitement of the big city,

she finds herself coming into her adult life. Alma now sways her hips

as she walks, dresses differently for all four seasons, and celebrates

the fact that she walks the same Greenwich Village sidewalks that

Dylan and Jimi Hendrix once walked.

But while she offers Eugene the opportunity to share the exhilarating

joys of living without debilitating boundaries, the pull back to South

Carolina proves too strong. Eugene inherits his estranged

grandfather’s

house, and Alma and Eugene return to face their families and their

futures head on.

"Yellowman" runs about 90 minutes without a break, but the

pace is relentlessly fast. While there are only two actors, the story

is told with a full complement of characters, with both Orlandersmith

and Overshown repeatedly stepping in and out of their roles as Alma

and Eugene to portray fathers, mothers, and school friends. Sometimes

it is tricky to recognize them at any given moment, but things move

so fast that clarity is soon restored.

Orlandersmith and Overshown work together like two

musicians

in a jazz band, displaying an easy sureness, mixing and matching their

dialogue with a dexterity built on familiarity. This has the rather

subtle result of making the emotional connections between Alma and

Eugene all the more apparent to the audience. Despite the poetically

charged dialogue, their pair deliver their lines naturally. Monologues

that can read like the flowing clatter of rhymed lyrics seem as

believable

as street corner conversation.

Physically, Orlandersmith and Overshown are anything but mirror images

of one another. But it is these physical differences — body shape

and size, skin tone, and gender — that prove perfect complements,

like splotches of orange and blue on an abstract painting.

"Yellowman" is not a naturalistic play, but it nevertheless

contains a realistic and believably heartfelt story, with a beginning,

middle, and end. Blanka Zizka’s direction is not naturalistic either,

but it is precise, maneuverable, and serves the text and actors well.

Characters move to isolated areas of the stage to stand alone like

stone lions with the vast space between them, or slow dance with one

another, back to back, facing away, but still holding hands. These

theatricalized movements never seem peculiar or forced, and meld

perfectly

with the compelling storyline, serving to highlight and visually

define

the emotional truth behind each character’s actions.

The great virtue of "Yellowman" is that for a play laced with

anger, it avoids bathing in polemics. The internal racism that fuels

the story does not embitter its characters, but rather motivates them

to struggle for a higher sort of life than the one they are doomed

to inherit in South Carolina. Orlandersmith doesn’t place blame, and

shows how even her villains have legitimate reasons for doing what

they do. Her characters remain complicated and profusely alive,

refusing

to settle into being victims.

"Rife with life?" Simple, perhaps. But I can’t imagine a more

apt compliment for both play and performances.

— Jack Florek

Yellowman, McCarter Theater Second Stage Onstage,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $20. Through Sunday, January 27.


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