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Playwright Dael Orlandersmith has said of her work, “I don’t do the pretty stuff. I’m interested in the darker side of human nature, where we are forced to look at ourselves and bring it into a light that’s beautiful.”
These words eloquently describe Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s powerful production of Ms. Orlandersmith’s play “Yellowman,” which can be seen through July 2 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.
A finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama, the play features just two actors in multiple roles. They tell the story of dark-skinned Alma and light-skinned Eugene (portrayed by the talented young actors Shadana Patterson and Michael Rawls), who become childhood friends and eventually fall in love. Growing up in the Gullah community of South Carolina in the 1960s and early 1970s, they must deal with poverty and limited opportunities, but more importantly, with parents and friends whose resentment and rage, intensified by alcoholism, may destroy their relationship.
The “darker side of human nature” exposed in “Yellowman” is racism within the black community, where lighter skin conveys social status and desirability. Ironically, light-skinned people, disparagingly called “high yellow,” also become objects of resentment and contempt because they do not fit in. While the play does not say so explicitly, these toxic myths are outgrowths of centuries of white American racism.
But within this damaging atmosphere, love blossoms, in the tradition of great romances like “Romeo and Juliet.” Initially oblivious to racism, Alma and Eugene learn to love each other, even while they absorb the destructive messages of their parents and dream of escape.
Alma opens the play with a moving monologue about the racial and sexual oppression her mothers have inherited, saying, “This is what my mother and her mother before her believed. They believed had they been born ‘rich and high yellow,’ they would not have suffered. . . . If only they could be light, light and rich, if they could marry a light-skinned man, they’d be loved.”
Alma’s mother, Odelia, grindingly poor and alcoholic, deserted by Alma’s father, is relentlessly hostile and abusive to her daughter, screaming at her that she is fat and ugly and will never deserve love. Ms. Peterson, a warm and humorous actress, wrenchingly performs the dialogues between mother and daughter, shifting from the loving, innocent Alma to her Gullah-accented, enraged and drunken mother, who at one point gives her a potion to try to lighten her skin. It is as if we are witnessing, through the actor’s body, how one is taught to hate oneself.
Mr. Rawls has an equal challenge, as a likeable, open young man who finds himself slowly sucked in to a cycle of destructive behavior. He plays multiple roles including Eugene’s dark-skinned and resentful father, his light-skinned mother, and her father, who leaves to Eugene his money but also his rage and racial hatred. In a hilarious and horrifying scene, Mr. Rawls enacts a reunion between Eugene and his grandfather that starts out warm and tender, but grows ugly as his grandfather gleefully describes a violent workplace clash between light- and dark-skinned men. Listening to him, Eugene says, “I saw my own hate.”
The simple set design by Michael Chancellor places the actors on a riser in battered metal chairs, telling their stories in alternating monologues, with a backdrop fence of two-by-fours that suggests the confinement of their community. Phoenix and Oliver Ballentine’s lighting subtly highlights the mood changes of the play, alternating warm reds and yellows with cooler blues. Costume designer Lauren Crotty uses similarly subtle color palettes; Alma’s earthy yellow dress evokes her innocence and, later, her sensuality as she sashays across the stage while describing walking down the streets of Manhattan:
“I feel sexy – my hips sway to the rhythm – the various rhythms of different neighborhoods – different streets. I am no longer barefoot in Southern heat in a dirt yard. I am full-booted and bundled for New York falls and winters. My hips are swaying – not just to the rhythm of Southern back door men. My hips are moving now by themselves free, uncontrolled and spontaneously.”
Most evocative is the music, played by Christie Chiles Twillie (piano) and Irene Schweizer (cello), and composed by Ms. Twillie and Tim Rhoze, with additional music from sound designer Connor Ciesil. Sitting in center stage between the two actors, the musicians serve as a kind of nonverbal chorus, their bluesy rhythms punctuating the storytelling.
Mr. Rhoze, who directed this play and is also artistic director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, knows “Yellowman” inside and out. “‘Yellowman’ was the first play I directed professionally, at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13 years ago,” he recalls. “My initial reading of the play was pure magic. Orlandersmith’s mastery and use of language to create the incredible emotional journey taken by two young African Americans in South Carolina had a profound impact on me; I became immersed in this coming-of-age, romantic tragedy and discovered that my passion for theatre was expanding daily as a result.”
Mr. Rhoze’s understanding of the play has grown as his own life has changed, and as society has progressed in some ways and stood still in others. “Racism, and even classism within the African American community continues today,” he notes, “and the community of ‘Yellowman’ is not the only racial or ethnic community that experiences these ‘isms.’ Will the younger generation go out and destroy this cycle of prejudice? I hope the play will influence people to have authentic conversations about these themes.”
Though set in a locale that seems remote, this intense, painful love story could not be more relevant to the present time.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission.