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
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
— in this case, internal racism. "High-yellow" is a
term used within the African-American community to differentiate
persons of light and dark skin. But while Orlandersmith’s play firmly
dramatizes the negative affects racism plays in the lives of its
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
with the compelling storyline, serving to highlight and visually
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,
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
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $20. Through Sunday, January 27.
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