Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, a Pulitzer Prize nominee this past season, brings the poet-turned-playwright back to Seattle's ACT Theatre, which has previously hosted her solo performance plays The Gimmick and Monster. Yellowman is the author/actress' first two-character play, though really two extended monologues which overlap and intertwine. My reaction to this play, seemingly in the minority given other critical responses, is that I found it a self-indulgent, self-satisfied and tedious effort, only occasionally redeemed by the charisma and expressiveness of Orlandersmith's co-star Howard W. Overshown.
Orlandersmith and Overshown play Alma and Eugene, childhood hood friends and subsequent lovers raised in South Carolina's Gullah culture, which pits the descendants of West African slaves (who maintain a centuries-old dialect) against the light skinned ("high yella") blacks, who disdain them for their dark hues and different ways. Alma is the ambitious daughter of a slovenly woman who has been so badly treated in her own life that she constantly discourages her daughter and disparages her for her physical appearance. Eugene, the Yellowman of the show's title, comes from a more well off family, in which his own father disdains his son's fair-skinned appearance. The story eventually takes Alma to New York where she tries to remake herself in every way except for her relationship with Eugene. Eugene and Alma consummate a physical relationship and plan a life together, but a tragic turn of events following the funeral of Eugene's maternal grandfather dooms their chances of ever finding happiness.
Gloomy stuff, and directed at a snail's pace by Blanka Zizka, Yellowman has precious few moments of hope or uplift in it. A section where Alma revels in her embrace of New York and all the wondrous differences and variety it offers in contrast to South Carolina is like a cool glass of lemonade in the stifling atmosphere set up in the main body of the play, and there is potent emotionality, too, in the sequence where Alma and Eugene first make love. But this accounts for about ten minutes out of a ninety minute play which felt far longer.
Orlandersmith seems oddly uncomfortable much of the time, for someone who has succeeded in carrying an entire evening of theatre by herself. Overshown dominates the play with an astonishing physical and emotional presence that bodes well for his future career. But he can only do so much, and in the end Yellowman is just a festering, angry diatribe, masquerading as an important evening of theatre.
Yellowman runs through August 4 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St in downtown Seattle. For further information visit their web-site at www.acttheatre.org.