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With color such a consuming, ferociously fought-over issue in Arena Stage’s richly rewarding Yellowman, it’s intriguing that playwright Dael Orlandersmith concerns herself so much with sound.
The evening is scarcely under way when chocolate-brown Alma (Laiona Michelle) speaks of the light amber skin tones she wishes she saw in her mirror. Hers is a hand-me-down racial aesthetic, a fact she acknowledges in a lilting melodic rush, describing herself as “a woman like my mother, and her mother before her, and more than likely, her mother before her,” the L’s and M’s and R’s in those short syllables cascading from her lips as musical triplets.
The words bespeak tradition, and their cadence is as lulling and comforting as the murmur of a babbling brook—which makes it all the more remarkable that what’s being described is generations of bigotry and destructive self-negation. Alma is poor and dark, her boyfriend Eugene (Howard W. Overshown) is better-off and lighter-complected, and their South Carolina community, with its Gullah/
Geechee roots and high-yellow aspirations, pigeonholes them with a rigidity that would doubtless please segregationists of all persuasions.
Both kids are regarded by the dominant white society as “black,” but the link between social status and fair skin has been ingrained in their oppressed community to such an extent that gradations in darkness—coal, pitch, amber, red, yellow—have become inextricably tied to destiny. So much so that Eugene’s dark-featured father regards his café-au-lait son as unfairly advantaged. “You think I’d be more handsome if I were high-yellow, like you?” Eugene mimics his dad asking in a guttural, bourbon-soaked voice. The lad was only 9 at the time, but already perceptive enough to recognize an enemy in his house.
Alma’s self-image is similarly scarred. Talking of how her heavyset, “black-black” mother marinated her loneliness in gin—and did her damnedest to transfer her own self-loathing to her bright, ambitious daughter—Alma mostly sounds analytical and detached. Still, some of Mom’s idealized notions about slenderness and lightness clearly rubbed off. Remembering the first and only time she saw her father, Alma describes her mother chasing pathetically after him, “her thick black feet hitting the hot tar road.” Then her voice deepens as she recounts how her mother turned on her later that night, blaming the abandonment not on the feckless lout who bedded and abandoned her, but on Alma’s dark skin. Small wonder that years later, lying nervously in Eugene’s arms, Alma worries less about the loss of her virginity than about how her skin looks against the sheets, and whether, when Eugene holds her close, there’s just too much of her for him to hold.
Those who don’t know that the playwright is a poet and monologuist can probably guess that pedigree from the storytelling structure she’s arrived at for Yellowman—a series of intertwined soliloquies and scenes, each of which brims with rhythmic invention, all performed by two actors. A sequence in which the pair, as kids, run themselves to exhaustion with arms outstretched has the preadolescent vibrancy of a real-life playground. A scene in which small-town Alma discovers the urban pulse of Manhattan and alters the swing of her hips, the rhythm of her walk, is a vivid little playlet in itself. Tazewell Thompson’s spare, smart staging finds dozens of similarly striking moments in Orlandersmith’s script—and renders them with a directness and richness I simply can’t remember from his previous work. It helps that he has two really virtuosic performers at his command: Michelle sometimes seems to be channeling all seven of the women from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. And Overshown matches her vocal leaps, all the while contributing his own robust physicality to the playing of characters who are variously uncomfortable in their own skins. In one climactic scene that hinges on Eugene’s being goaded by a light-skinned friend into challenging his father, the actor seems to be playing Iago to his own Othello. Remarkable work all around.
With writing this nuanced and playing this expressive, it makes sense that Thompson and his designers have gone to some pains not to decorate the evening with distracting flourishes. Donald Eastman’s setting is a stark black floor backed by a gauzy backdrop in pristine white—emblematic, perhaps, of the absolutes that society makes of the gradations in skin tone under discussion. Economic disparity is articulated simply: a straight tall window behind Eugene’s chair, contrasted with a sagging, off-kilter door behind Alma’s. Lest this scenic austerity seem too sterile, Robert Wierzel’s lighting bathes the stage in mood-evoking pastels. But the evening’s real color is provided by Orlandersmith’s verbal fireworks and the shimmering, pulsing sense of hope her characters keep alive until the play’s final seconds. CP