Credit: Handout photo by Michael DuBois

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Shades of skin color shape the destiny of a Southern black couple in Dael Orlandersmith’s gripping play, which was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama. In the hands of director Thembi Duncan and her talented cast of two, Anacostia Playhouse’s production is an energetic and powerful must-see.

An intensely arresting Stori Ayers and a smartly understated Justus Hammond play upwards of a dozen roles between them, in addition to the play’s central pair: Alma and Eugene. As black children coming of age in rural South Carolina, Alma and Eugene gleefully re-create Batman scenarios on the playground and dance unabashedly to the theme song to The Monkees, ignoring the jibes and admonishments of friends and family who view their contrasting skin tones—he’s “high yella’” and she’s dark—as predictors of their future stations in life. Despite the intra-racism that has plagued their families for decades, the friends transcend the petty hatreds of their parents, grandparents, and friends, sticking together through adolescence and falling in love in young adulthood.

Alma’s rancorous mother, Odelia, encourages the match, even as she belittles and abuses her daughter, repeatedly calling her fat, black, and ugly. Odelia’s insults are the misdirected lashings out of a woman stuck in a prison of self-loathing, the bars of which she believes were forged by her daughter; she thinks both women were too dark to keep Alma’s light-skinned father from fleeing. Eugene’s light-skinned mother, Thelma, politely tolerates Alma with a seething smile, while his dark-skinned father, Robert, berates his son for having light skin, hurling invective that’s similar to Odelia’s hammering of her daughter. Alma is first to break away, finding her voice and her stride in New York, and though Eugene gets emotionally stalled inside a dubious Southern dream and his inherited alcoholism, the couple continues to build a sturdy life. Things go from racially and culturally complicated to violent when Eugene inherits his light-skinned grandfather’s fortune, fanning the flames of his parents’ anger over the real and perceived privileges of light skin.

Ayers and Hammond are superbly cast to play the physically contrasting characters who have love and values in common. Ayers is all extroverted bombast in the childhood scenes, and her commitment to young Alma’s playfulness and unfettered physicality (she moves with all the unconscious limb flopping of a carefree 6-year-old) is a total delight. Hammond’s stiff stances and impish vocalizations succeed in convincing us that the intrepid Alma is the only solution to Eugene’s anxious introversion. In the hands of these two actors, there is no question that this couple is meant to be, skin tones and sizes be damned.

As Alma ages, Ayers gives her a new stride that’s outwardly sensual but inwardly unsure, playing moments of pure intimacy with a surprising vulnerability. Hammond skillfully and quietly navigates the ebbs and flows of Eugene’s confidence as he moves toward an alternately unsteady and brave sense of manhood. But the total knockout acting moments of the production happen in Ayers’s seamless transitions from character to character, particularly when she moves from playing Alma to Odelia. The transformations are instantaneous and entirely thorough; her commitment to character details gives the impression of multiple talented actors stepping on stage.

Harlan Penn’s minimalist set is the perfect half-empty slate on which to craft this complicated, multi-character, multi-setting story. Duncan’s sense of pacing and her careful movement of the actors over dramatic peaks and valleys adds up to a layered and emotionally satisfying journey. The depth of emotional resonance packed into this bare-bones production is a reminder that exquisite storytelling need not rely on theatrical bells and whistles.

The play runs through Aug. 14. 2020 Shannon Place, SE. $20–$30.