Self-hatred is the most lethal hatred of them all. It runs through your veins like hot lead, poisoning your thoughts and perspective, filling every cell with corrosive anger and clouding your joy.
You’re like an animal turning on itself, constantly gnawing its own tail.
But what if this self-hatred is systemic, a self-perpetuating cycle that goes so far back nobody really knows when it started? They accept it as truth.
That’s the idea behind Yellowman, Dael Orlandersmith’s bold, poetic two-person play that examines how damaging it is to hate the color of your skin and your size. The 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist play is being given a shattering production at the Anacostia Playhouse with a duet of powerhouse performances and compassionate direction by Thembi Duncan.
Set in 1960s and 70s rural South Carolina and New York City and against Harlan Penn’s warm, wood-paneled set, the work looks at the hierarchy of color and body shape in African American society as it plays out in the lives of Alma (Stori Ayers) and Eugene (Justus Hammond).
Alma is dark-skinned and large-framed—just like her Gullah mother who abuses and reviles her daughter for being big, black and nappy-haired. Things are not much better for Eugene, who is light skinned—the characters in the play refer to him as “high yellow”—and lean with “good” hair. His blue-black father hates his son because of the color of his skin, which he believes opens up Eugene to more privileges and an easier life than what was afforded to him.
The two, who become soul mates the moment they meet on the elementary school playground, are also deemed unacceptable in other ways, particularly with notions of femininity and masculinity and beauty. Alma’s love of running and playing deems her unfeminine in her mother’s caustic view—she’s too big to ever be considered beautiful. Eugene is regarded as beautiful because he is pale, but he doesn’t see himself as particularly worthy. Who would, with your father constantly railing at you for being unmanly and weak?
Alma and Eugene, perhaps drawn to each other because of the negative pull of their upbringing, fall in love as young adults. They try to hold onto their sweet, strong bond as Alma goes off to college in New York and giddily forges a new identity for herself while Eugene stays behind and tries to prove himself a man and gain approval from his father.
They are lovers as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, only cursed by a legacy of oppression and hatred instead of feuding families, although there is a bit of that, too. The power of their love carries Yellowman to epic heights, especially in the scenes where the exuberant Ayers shows how Alma “finds her walk” and the right movement of her hips in the streets of New York.
running in rep with Riches
closes August 14, 2016
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Ayers’s Alma is all outward movement and lilting motion in these scenes, and you revel in her liberation and pride in her looks. Ayers is also adept at portraying Alma’s drunken, despicable and lowborn mother, making her a figure both ridiculous and tragic.
Hammond’s Eugene is contained and composed—a sleek missile just waiting to go off. He is indeed handsome, but so out of place within his body and uncomfortable in his skin that your heart just breaks. When Hammond portrays his macho father, however, he seems to grow in power and menacing confidence. Similarly, when he becomes his light-skinned, genteel drunk mother, he shrinks into the role.
Together, they are in perfect rhythm in New York as they revel in their new-found passion for each other and the old selves they’ve left behind, and the poetry of Orlandersmith’s dialogue is the melody that embraces their every gesture and touch. But even in the throes of love, Alma cannot help but attack her body for being too fat and dark. The tape in an endless loop in her head just won’t be quiet.
Yellowman is fraught with abuse, violence and congenital alcoholism, which is harrowing to watch. But Yellowman’s shimmering, intoxicating sadness stems not from these forms of ugliness. Instead, it is sad because love cannot prevail in the story of Alma and Eugene. The self-hatred they and other African Americans carry goes deeper than skin color or the broad curve of the hips—a hatred that is everywhere around them and dwells unhappily inside themselves.
Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith . Director: Thembi Duncan. Featuring Stori Ayers and Justus Hammond . Set Design: Harlan Penn. Lighting Design: Johnathan Alexander. Costume Design: Donna Breslin. Sound Design: David Lamont Wilson. Properties Design: Gregory Jackson. Production Manager: Camille Kashaka. Stage Manager: Keta Newborn . Produced by Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.