The second play in this year’s Studio Series at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. In her program notes, director Susan Gregg points out that Orlandersmith’s script is unconventional in structure; "part performance art, part story-theater, part epic poetry, part soap opera, part Romeo and Juliet, and a breath of totally fresh air in its form and structure." Ms. Gregg adds that Yellowman is a "sort of bluesy theater ballad for two actors." The most remarkable thing about the piece, I think, is the nature of the interaction – or lack of it – between the characters, small town lovers from rural South Carolina whose lives mesh as children and again as young adults, and who are torn apart ultimately in a violent and tragic fashion. The two actors, both on stage for the full 105 minutes of the play’s single act, touch each other only rarely and engage in direct dialogue with each other even less often. Most of the time they are reporting, sometimes over each other’s shoulders, what has happened, or is happening, or is about to happen.
This is most curiously the case in a scene in which we are to envision them in the act of love – in fact, as he is deflowering her – during which both are describing for the audience their individual sensations and responses. Other writers have led us into the minds of people having sex, or people committing violent crimes, but I cannot recall an instance in which the external event has been quite so subjugated to the interior monologues of both parties. That Miss Orlandersmith manages to make the scene both erotic and enlightening is genuinely remarkable.
To a dispassionate outside observer, Ms. Orlandersmith’s deeply felt resentment at skin-color based prejudice within the African-American community may seem overwrought, leading her, as it does, not only to repeat her thesis in varying terms and from the mouths of various characters from both sides of the divide, but to use the anger generated by this prejudice to motivate everything in her story, from breakups among childhood friends to an act of sexual abuse that leads to murder. Where another writer might see class struggle or sexual jealousy or an Oedipal conflict as motives in the conflict between friends from different sides of the tracks, or between mother and daughter, or between a son and a drunken father who lusts after the son’s fiancée, this playwright focuses so intently on the single issue of skin color that the ultimate impact of her story – what the audience takes home from the theater, as opposed to what it experiences during the production – is compromised.
Like the staged poetry of Ntozake Shange, Ms. Orlandersmith’s language is sometimes elegant, often lyrical, and at other times as earthy as a Bessie Smith blues. Alma, her young heroine, moves from naïve country girl to Hunter College student in a smooth arc, overcoming conflicts with strength of will and grace of spirit. Eugene, the young man, faces more dangerous trials, but seems about to accomplish the same feat of survival until he is engulfed by the play’s ultimate act of violence. All of the play’s characters, including Alma’s blowsy mother, Eugene’s drunken parents and tight-lipped grandfather, friends, teachers, and men and women in the background, are brought to life by two actors, Julia Pace Mitchell and Carsey Walker. They, as well as director Gregg, deserve great applause for the technical skill and intense energy they bring to bear on each of these characters and on the entire evening.
In short, Yellowman is an powerful evening of theater, though it is less persuasive as a polemic about the issue of prejudice based on skin-color than it is as a telling of a tragic story about two very appealing and thoroughly human young people.
Yellowman continues through February 5 in the Emerson Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton Center. Seating is general admission. For performance times and ticket information, call (314) 968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org/studio/.