Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman is a story of black-on-black bigotry, parental abuse, internalized self-loathing, and alcoholism. In other words, just another fun night at the theatre.
Alma (Kelly Renee Armstrong) is taught by her poor, abandoned, and alcoholic mother that she is doomed to unhappiness because she is big and dark, and therefore ugly. In the Gullah/Geechie subculture of former African slave communities inhabiting the South Carolina Lowcountry, Eugene (Jon Hudson Odom) is viewed as blessed because he inherited his mother’s light skin, although he is in turn despised as “High Yellow” by dark-skinned African Americans, including his own father, Robert (Odom).
All of this has the potential for melodrama. But the current production at Rep Stage largely avoids it, in part through Kasi Campbell’s intelligent direction, in part through devices playwright Orlandersmith employs to good effect, and in part through terrific performances by Armstrong and Odom.
They play all the roles and give honest and commanding performances. Occasionally they speak to each other, but mostly they speak in surprisingly effective monologues which offer a good blend of storytelling narrative and character revelations.
We follow Alma and Eugene as they meet as elementary students in the 1960s, face coming of age issues in the 1970s, develop a blossoming and mature love that survives Alma’s decision to head to college in New York City, and face the disapproval of their families. Family feelings about differences in skin color, after all, are so strong that Eugene’s grandfather had cut his daughter off when she married the dark and proud Robert.
Orlandersmith, who based the story on her childhood summers living with South Carolina relatives, played Alma in the original production, and she seems to have given Alma the better, more emotionally revealing moments. Armstrong capitalizes on her opportunities to give a powerful, well-rounded portrait of a woman struggling to see her own worth. Odom fares less well with the sensitive Eugene, who Orlandersmith makes a little too consistently melodramatic, but he shows great versatility in creating distinctive character portraits for each of his many roles.
The harsh summer heat, with storm clouds gathering, seems almost like another character. The emotions, particularly the hatred, are so strong that you feel the threat of tragedy on the horizon even when Yellowman offers a brief moment of happiness to the two young lovers. The staging on a mostly bare space illuminated by projected photo scenery amplifies the stark and powerful nature of the work.
Despite the lyrical writing and powerful themes that made Yellowman a Pulitzer Prize finalist, the play is not without flaws. It consistently feels heavy-handed; character thoughts are sometimes aired that would be more effectively implied (especially near the end), and at two hours plus the one-act play seems a little long.
Yet Campbell helps maximize the tensions of piece, making much of the Rep Stage production an edge-of-the-seat experience. She also displays an equally deft touch with the welcome lighter moments of the play – especially in a memorable sequence where Alma demonstrates the rhythms of different New York City neighborhoods through distinctive walks.
At times, Yellowman can be an uncomfortable experience in ways both good and bad. Many of its themes have a universal impact. After all, who hasn’t felt bad about their appearance, or been embarrassed by parental attitudes, or known the excitement of a new love or a new city? If the play is a little more extreme than it needs to be, the Rep Stage production is a work of power and depth. Just don’t bring the kids.
by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Kasi Campbell
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes with no intermission