"Yellowman"explores the lifetime friendship between a dark-skinned woman and a light-skinned man. Not the racial divide between white and black, but the more subtle and equally insidious tensions, based simply on lighter and darker skin tones, within African American society, That "simple" difference is as complex and emotionally charged as any other issue in the mine field of race.
Whether in the rural world of a small, Southern town or the urban expanse of New York, whether between friends, within a family, or simply in the messages people send to themselves, the constant, demeaning drone is that whatever one's color, body shape or gender, it is wrong. Whatever one is, wherever one is, whatever one wants or has or dreams of, it is all somehow irreparably wrong.
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith, who also plays the role of Alma in this two character drama, brings a poet's ear and sensitivity to making it all personal and powerful, and it rings with truth and pain, which in this case is always, tragically, inter-related. Her voice is powerful and distinctive, and she's built this evening with the careful structure of a sonnet, and the rhythm of a delta blues. I think her controlling metaphor is shades -- shades of skin color, shades of opportunity and ambition, shades of self-realization and self-defeat, shades of accusation and forgiveness. Primarily, I think this is a play about things that keep people apart, whether that distance is between friends, lovers, families, or dreams and reality. The resolution of the play does not bring the two characters together, but instead binds them across a chasm that has not grown narrower in any way, but immeasurably deeper.
It speaks well of Ms. Orlandersmith that I was surprised, in reading background material, to discover that anything in this play wasn't autobiographical. It feels that authentic and intimate. As a performer, she has such a strong presence, such a clear and articulate voice, and such desire to communicate, that when she leans forward, we also lean forward, and the result draws us inside the play, and her own telling, in a remarkably convincing way.
Equally important to the play's success is the splendid performance of Howard W. Overshown as her friend Eugene. Whether as a small boy playing hand games with his neighbor, as an insecure, hormonally intoxicated teenager, or as a young man who sees his unpromising future entirely too clearly in front of him, this was a confident, fully finished performance. The scene in which he finally confronts his father, in a nightmare of alcohol-fueled pain, anger and disappointment, rose to genuinely tragic levels. That was the result of many smaller, but equally important arrivals along the way. Mr. Overshown is technically excellent, and genuinely appealing without ever seeming ingratiating or obvious. Like the rest of this play, his performance is shaped with restraint, taste, and a deep commitment to speaking clearly in whatever kind of language is being employed. Such balance between performers, and between the text and the action is ultimately the achievement of the director, and Blanka Zizka, who has been involved with this play throughout its development, knows every moment, every gesture, perfectly.
"Yellowman" is a painful, uneasy look at a racial phenomenon that achieves nothing and costs a very great deal. Beyond that, it is a very particular statement about one woman's experience of the world, and about how art shapes her ugliest experiences into something meaningful and beautiful and real. That this traditional coming of age story, this familiar tale of the personal cost of racism and prejudice, this unhappy pilgrims progress should seem so fresh and original says everything about a writer who has taken the stage for herself. This is a woman with much to say, on a subject difficult to speak about, and she gives us every reason to listen.
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