In Yellowman, obviously, there's not a lot of room for blacks and whites. Instead, Yellowman draws strength from ambiguities, and writer Dael Orlandersmith's honest meditations on race, love and family provide for startlingly immediate theater.
There's a reason Orlandersmith was a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Yellowman, and that's because it is a very fine, well-written show. Yellowman is an examination of the African American racial hierarchy in South Carolina circa the 1960's-70's, particularly the racial tension between light-skinned (yellow) and darker blacks. This stark racial tension is brought to a tragic head through yellow Eugene's (Howard W. Overshown) burgeoning relationship with darker-skinned Alma (Laiona Michelle). Further conflict is sparked by Eugene's contentious relationship with his own bitterly dark-skinned father (his mother is light-skinned).
Yellowman's ambiguous racial divide could have been a lesser conflict were it not for Orlandersmith's courageously honest and confrontational writing. Orlandersmith's beautifully evocative prose melts like ice in the summer heat, and her frank but fiery sex and race talk imbues her writing with a striking poetic realism. "Do you think I'm handsome, Eugene? You think I'd be more handsome if I was high-yellow like you?" Eugene's father asks him in one brutal early scene.
Here it's important to note that Yellowman is a two-person play: Eugene and Alma are telling their story as if from memory, often playing the parts of heavily involved characters (primarily Alma for her mother and Eugene for his father).
Overshown and Michelle merit special attention for their outstanding work. Overshown gives an especially versatile, powerful performance, capable of the most painful explosions and subtlest reflection. Fortunately, Michelle is a remarkably adaptive foil, and her ability to keep the stage with Overshown should not be under appreciated, especially given the humor she smoothly maintains in the show. "He's talking about people we went to school with: this one had a baby with that one's husband," the perfectly cool and straight-faced Alma throws out at one point.
Yellowman is a powerhouse production throughout, featuring consistently strong direction. Director Tazewell Thompson keeps the play moving astoundingly well, the empty space and small cast never distracting from the show's flow. Thompson keeps Overshown and Michelle from overplaying their parts, and this allows tension to naturally develop. It's hard to believe that a play beginning with children's summertime bonding over the Monkees and Batman could so smoothly become a dramatic stand off. But throughout the loss of friends and questions of identity, and the conflict between family (mostly young and old), Yellowman becomes increasingly and understandably dark. By the play's hard, brutal ending, tragedy is not unexpected or unbelievable, but rather sadly avoidable.
As befits Yellowman's confessional, narrated tone, the stage is mostly bare (save for a chair or two), but is subtly supported by moody colored backdrops. These work perfectly, the bright yellow at the beginning of the show is wonderfully evocative of the summer heat, for instance. Yet as the show develops, darker, more soulful and more complicated backdrops appear; a New York cityscape not only establishes change of locations, but also is beautifully abstract. Set and lighting designers Donald Eastman and Robert Wierzel clearly have a natural chemistry. More, Fabian Obispo's sound design and solid original music, while not integral to the play, does not distract from Yellowman in the slightest (another example of the rightfully restrained direction under which drama flourishes).
By all rights, Orlandersmith's harsh, two-person show could have been a failure. Instead, Yellowman is a triumph of language and performance, and thoroughly good theater throughout.
Yellowman is playing in the Kreeger at Arena Stage through April 18. Tickets cost between $35 and $53; however, people aged 5 through 25 can buy from a limited number of $10 tickets until 5:25 p.m. the day of the performance.
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