Shades of Meaning

Thought-provoking Yellowman bravely explores racism within the black community.

Racism is a common topic in theater, but before attending Dael Orlandersmith's lacerating Yellowman, I had never seen a play that explored racism within the black community itself -- that is, the contempt felt by some lighter-skinned African-Americans toward their darker-skinned brethren and the reciprocal rage it engenders. Some analysts view this as one of the many legacies of slavery -- lighter-skinned blacks possibly being the descendants of white slaveholders -- and without question, almost every aspect of racial interaction in America life is shaped to some extent by that evil history. But I suspect that gradations of skin color helps determine class, prosperity and status in many cultures of the world.

Orlandersmith deserves tremendous credit for her honesty and courage in dealing with this topic, but Yellowmanis far more than a political screed. The play is set in 1960s South Carolina, and the characters aren't types; they're breathing human beings whose lives are complicated by issues of poverty, class, youth, isolation and alcoholism.

Alma describes her mother as hopeless, fat, drunken, uneducated and ugly. Her father, who returned to see the family he'd deserted and immediately left when he saw that his daughter resembled her mother, was lighter-skinned, or "high yeller." Eugene is the son of a dark-skinned father and a lighter-skinned mother, and he resembles the latter. His mother's marriage has never been accepted by his maternal grandfather. Alma and Eugene play together as children; later, they fall in love.

Candace Taylor and Tyee J. Tilghman in 
Yellowman.
Todd Webster
Candace Taylor and Tyee J. Tilghman in Yellowman.

But their environment is filled with rage and self-loathing. Eugene's parents are dysfunctional. His father hates and threatens him for his paler skin. His grandfather sees life as an ongoing war. He once blinded a taunting co-worker to prove that his light skin didn't make him a wimp. Alma is ashamed of her mother, whom she watched running after Alma's departing father until she fell and lay in the road, "panting like a dog." Worse, Alma has internalized this shame and sees herself as huge and ugly. This is not a world in which love can flourish; it's unlikely even to survive.

But Alma fights for her own life. She gets a scholarship to college and leaves for New York City, where she reinvents herself and invites Eugene to join her. And, for a brief, sweet while, he does -- until the unresolved conflicts in their homes pull them back to the South.

All of this is related in a series of alternating monologues. Though it's a somewhat static form, it works. The play does have some problems, however. It could be pruned. Orlandersmith's writing style is eloquent and poetic and makes deliberate use of repetition, but the repetition sometimes becomes excessive. The play also sounds one pain-filled emotional note throughout. Was there never a peaceful meal in the household of either of the protagonists? Did any relative ever say anything playful, affectionate or funny? Did Alma's mother never surprise her with a moment of insight?

I'm not sure I believed the explosive violence of the ending, although it is foreshadowed in several earlier incidents. Still, nothing in the script has indicated that Eugene is capable of the ferocity he shows here.

These flaws are more than offset, however, by the playwright's emotional honesty, her refusal to sentimentalize her characters or mouth meaningless truisms.

Director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe's production is a strong one. I had one small cavil with her direction: The characters drink constantly, but all the miming and raising of invisible glasses becomes distracting. And here's a larger quibble: Because of the play's structure, Alma and Eugene almost never address each other directly, an indication of the coldness that will eventually fall between them. But when Eugene arrives in New York, they move into each other's arms for a few seconds before Alma's self-consciousness and body-hatred kick in. Those few seconds should have had far more impact than they did. They should be a punctuation point, piercingly sweet. But the actors rush through the moment, and the effect is lost.

Candace Taylor's Alma has presence and dignity and a strong, melodious speaking voice. But although Taylor gives all the lines about vulnerability their due, her Alma is neither vulnerable nor self-revelatory. The play would have been more shattering if she were. Tyee J. Tilghman plays Eugene with power and subtlety. Both actors are called on to portray ancillary characters, and Tilghman evokes a small gallery of vivid portraits: the terrifying father towering over eight-year-old Eugene; Eugene's grandfather, wheezing with asthma as he recounts his creepy ideas about manhood; even Eugene's mother, classy, passive and usually drunk. One of the best moments is silent; it occurs when Eugene, wearing a straw hat, arrives at the train station in New York and stands on the platform, motionless and lost.

Yellowman is a moving and thought-provoking play that should be seen by audiences of all races.

 
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