Discrimination can come in many forms, and Yellowman, now playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is an edgy and provocatively written exploration of an infrequently addressed one.
Approaching verse drama at times, Yellowman maintains a strong connection with both the theatre of today and of the past. Blanka Zizka's direction against the stark, empty set of Kalara Zieglerova provides both detachment from the subject matter, while maintaining an epic sense of possibility. But with the help of Russel H. Champa's dizzying array of lights, she makes sure the audience's focus never drifts from the actors, who create, over the course of the performance, the wide array of locations and attitudes that follow the show's central couple through 20 years or so in their relationship.
Both Alma (Dael Orlandersmith, also the play's author) and Eugene (Howard W. Overshown) have known the difficulties of growing up black in Russellville, South Carolina, but have had very different experiences. Alma is one in a long line of heavy-set, darker skinned field workers, generally risen sexless and opinionless, but Eugene's skin is much lighter, earning him the near-epithet "yellow."
Friends from childhood, Alma and Eugene eventually grow to love each other, but must learn to deal with their own negative perceptions, and the perceptions of those around them. Eugene's father is particularly resentful of him, feeling that he's had life far too easy, and that causes no end of troubles for Eugene until the play's harrowing final moments. Alma receives similar support from her mother, who was abandoned by Alma's father very early on. Despite the difficult subject matter, Yellowman is frequently successful at avoiding complete bleakness, with a decent amount of levity and success to be found in the pain.
Orlandersmith is even able to smooth over the more difficult scenes with an unusually flowing poetic style. The opening moments of the play, describing her family's history in South Carolina, are almost epic in scope, presenting powerful images and precisely describing Alma's life and ancestry. Orlandersmith also uses the repetition of key phrases to underscore her points and her characters' emotional states of mind.
This works with varying degrees of success - it's brilliant in her opening monologue (in which she describes her family history and the distinctions that do and do not exist between the generations of women in her family), but it proves less effective in the show's smaller moments. Sometimes, Orlandersmith gives us too much of a good thing, and the characters' inabilities to break out of that mold of speaking occasionally weaken its usage elsewhere.
But Orlandersmith's flair shines through regardless, and when her use of the language does work, it's impossible to imagine the characters speaking in any other way. As performers, Orlandersmith and Overshown make all these moments work, regardless of their weight or composition. Orlandersmith's transformation from a poor Russellville girl to a more suave, sturdy New York sophisticate is heartening, and Overshown's dramatic (and usually confrontational) conversations with his father and grandfather are striking in their dramatic simplicity and effectiveness.
Though the two share relatively few scenes directly with each other, those moments are usually the highlights of Yellowman . They reinforce the play's familiar - if no less vital - central notion of acceptance and tolerance of others regardless of their skin color. Though the events of the play are often tragic, Orlandersmith's new spin on the subject reinforces that theme strongly making Yellowman - if occasionally tragic - worthwhile and thought-provoking.
Manhattan Theatre Club