Clark Jackson and Inga Ballard
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre is presenting Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, a compelling character study that addresses the phenomenon of internal racism and the resulting repercussions. Most often depicted as a prejudice between races, racism also exists to different degrees within individual cultures based on the shade of the skin. Within the African-American culture, those with light skin ("high yellow") may be regarded as inferior or superior to those with darker skin, depending on the frame of reference. This production, marked by a very straightforward presentation, illustrates through two characters how this type of racism can be as damaging as that between different races.

Michael Olich's set is spartan, providing a simple background of wooden walls with a doorway, a plain floor, and two sitting stools. His costumes also offer little distraction; the story is told by two actors who succeed in creating many images of two characters - through a lifetime of growth - enabling the audience to envision everything necessary to become emotionally involved. Inga Ballard (City's Crowns) plays the dark-skinned Alma, who from childhood is taught by her mother (from the Gullah community) that heavy, dark-skinned women are ugly and that Alma should seek out a light-skinned husband, even though it is Alma's light-skinned father who has abandoned them. Alma rises above the many challenges of attempting to make sense of the racial conflicts, with the additional example of her light-skinned best friend, later her lover, Eugene (Clark Jackson). Eugene suffers through his own struggles with racism, from his parents (a light-skinned mother and dark Gullah father) and from light-skinned peers.

Through the voices, gestures and body language of the two actors, the story of these two friends progresses, through the voices and gestures of the two actors, from childhood to adulthood. As independence is sought and their lives intersect, great anticipation is built about where Alma and Eugene will land in life, and whether or not they can overcome the personal denigration that threatens to trap them in a bad situation. Luckily, Ballard and Jackson are both adept at portraying children without looking silly, and the bond between the two characters is well illustrated. Ballard is a particularly natural and effective storyteller; she gives a very layered portrayal of Alma, allowing us to imagine the thoughts and emotions experienced at different levels of maturity.

The performances and script are enhanced through expeditious directing by Regge Life. By play's end, I almost felt I had held my breath throughout the entire 90 minutes as I anticipated each step taken by these characters. This production of Yellowman is a very satisfying package, dealing with devastating and weighty issues.

Yellowman continues at Pittsburgh Public Theater through December 4. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.

Photo: Ric Evans

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