Color lines within the Black community and their effect on two generations of South Carolinians are the source of domestic tragedy in Dael Orlandersmith's narrative poetic drama, "Yellowman", playing for a month at the New Repertory Theatre. Orlandersmith explores this delicate subject, more often a source of comedy, using only two actors whose parallel narration reveals their intertwined lives. They adopt the voices of their families and friends as needed. The Pulitzer-nominated script, more a story told in heightened verse-like language, is a tour de force of writing and a challenge to its cast. The difficulty is compounded since the author played the female role herself at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2002, bringing specific overtones of her own to the performance. Award-winning director Lois Roach has gotten distinctive performances from both actors in this production.
At the New Rep, Adrienne D. Williams, who's been a member of the Jean Cocteau Repertory, gives a strong performance as Alma, a poor, darker-skinned country girl, living on a hardscrabble farm with her alcoholic unwed mother. Her lighter-skinned footloose father rejects her as too big and too dark--like her mother--on his one visit. Alma has the longest poetic sections, very much in the mode of Black free verse of the last half-century. These well-written moments often don't move the action or the character along very quickly, but are generally interesting. IRNE winner Dorian Christian Baucum plays Eugene, a light-skinned townie whose dark father married a yellow girl whose family then disowned her. Eugene's self-educated father Richard worked himself up to foreman at the lumber mill to provide a good life for his wife and son. But the resentment lingers and the result proves fatal. Baucum proves adept at displaying the inner conflicts which ultimately destroy Eugene's life, for this is his tragedy though it's Alma's story.
The two performers in the dramatic narrative begin as children and end, in the coda, as greatly changed adults. Baucum, who has toured for the Underground Railway Theatre playing young Fredrick Douglass in Melinda Lopez's "How Do You Spell Hope?" is particularly adept at playing young, an additional advantage since Eugene never quite grows up. He's really still a "yellow boy." Williams, a large actress, suggests a more mature world-view from the start. Alma's decision to head North and accept a scholarship at Hunter is not that surprising. All the characters in "Yellowman" have a touch of archetype, which facilitates the actors shifting roles, even having conversations with themselves, and cues the potential tragedy. The events of the storyline might seem overwrought otherwise. As presented, they seem almost inevitable. The most effective of these duets for one actor are Eugene's first meeting with his light-skinned grandfather, whose racism he rejects, and Alma's final confrontation with her abusive mother. Perhaps the strongest message of the show is the effect that adult prejudice has on the young.
Technical aspects of the show are subtle but effective. Hector Fernandez's set is essentially a bare thrust stage backed by a long platform two steps up. There are two light wooden folding chairs serve as all the furniture. The stage is black with a dark scrim stretched at the back to accept atmospheric lighting. Award-winning designer John R. Malinowski creates a seemingly endless variety of areas and moods from the lighting, without calling attention to his effects. In a larger space gobos and more levels might be necessary, but in the New Rep's classic church hall, this staging is more than sufficient. Frances Nelson McSherry has found costumes which echo moments in the story, while let the actors play characters over more than a decade of development. There's no soundscape, none's needed though careful effects might help punctuate the action more. That task falls mostly on the actors, who could occasionally use the help, given transitions of place and time.
The author's biggest strength is character detail revealed through interaction , which would make this piece theatrically interesting even without the melodrama inherent in it. The tragic end, which suggests that there's no way out of the dilemma, except perhaps leaving, is not entirely satisfactory. The final image of Alma in New York getting on with her life and Eugene in prison borders on cliche. A final confrontation between the young man and his father which left the two of them alive to face an fatally damaged future might have been more powerful. As a writer, Orlandersmith, with a play commissioned by the Wilma, a novel approaching publication, and a possible screenplay of "Yellowman" will have many more chances to become a more subtle storyteller to compliment her heightened first-person narratve. Her command of language, which sometimes seems indulgent, could develop economy in time.
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