Thursday, June 14, 2012


What I liked most about “Yellowman” is that it’s a show that actually delves into an issue, gets to the meat of it, and dramatizes the very real effects of it on people’s lives. The issue for this play is racism, specifically racism within the African-American community where darker skinned blacks are considered brutish and ugly while lighter-skinned “high yellow” blacks are thought to be more attractive but also privileged and lazy.

I’ve felt some frustration with recent shows that have a racial element but don’t really go anywhere with it. In “Scorched Earth,” a mixed-race baby initiates the play’s action but race is just a hook to get your attention and ends up tangential to the rest of the “who-done-it” plot. I felt manipulated by “Earth.” In one of the first scenes the local plant foreman talks about a diversity committee but real issues involving race are never explored. Worst of all, in a show that uses race as its hook, none of the African-American characters end up being essential to the denouement. Even Elijah, the character at the heart of the plot, ultimately ends up being mute and peripheral.

“Dessa Rose” is a musical with some hot-button issues at its core but, to its credit and detriment, race is not really one of them. Or at least, not any cohesive perspective about race. Instead, the story uses race – or more exactly, slavery – as a pivot that individuals and relationships move around. One slave owner is bad and brutal, another is clever and opportunistic. One interracial relationship is bad, another is redemptive. Ruth is kind to slaves so she is good because all of the slaves are honorable and brave. More intricate and interesting are the relationship dynamics between Dessa and Ruth, but in those dynamics, race is a simple fact, not an issue with complicated facets.

In “Yellowman,” issues of race are about as complicated as they can be. And instead of presenting anything sanctimonious or pat, the play clarifies those issues via the lens of a long-term relationship between Alma (Patricia Alli) and Eugene (KeiLyn Jones). The two of them live in a world – a southern, intrinsically racist world – where no one truly escapes the ravages of hate based on skin color. Animosity creeps into every nook and cranny of their lives so that, while race is at the foundation, the real pain comes via familial relationships, friendships that are built and destroyed, and ultimately, self-hatred that taints even passionate interludes that are supposed to be expressions of joy.

This all sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but Dael Orlandersmith’s script keeps things moving quickly enough and creates such engaging characters that the play rarely feels bogged down. Under J. Paul Nicholas’ steady hand, the production steers clear of the morose and, particularly when hope for escape starts building late in the play, the joy of discovery is palpable. Alli and Jones are exceptional actors. In additional to creating rich and complex central characters with Alma and Eugene, both do a great job portraying Alma’s and Eugene’s parents and friends.

As I said during the talkback session after I saw the show last Friday, what makes “Yellowman” compelling is that it’s a good story. It’s a love story, it’s a story of the urban/rural dichotomy of a particular city, it’s a story about two families, it’s both a tragedy and a redemption story. Sure, it’s an African-American story but more than that, it’s an American story. Tapping into the abundant variations of experience provided by this glorious melting pot of a country, Orlandersmith creates story about how many shades of gray – or yellow – are mixed in between the black and the white, making watching this play profoundly satisfying on emotional, historical, personal, and all sorts of other levels. Perhaps most of all, it's refreshing and invigorating to see a show that is actually about something, and that is not just an entertainment that plays bait-and-switch with more serious issues.

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