An issue of color, among blacks

`Yellowman' mines delicate territory

TheaterReview

March 17, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Racism and hatred are ugly in any form, but they are especially pernicious when they take the form of internal racism and self-hatred.

These are the kinds of dirty little secrets that most groups prefer not to air in public. But just as Alfred Uhry defied the taboo and wrote about discrimination between German-American Jews and Russian-American Jews in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, so does Dael Orlandersmith take on the taboo subject of discrimination between light- and dark-skinned African-Americans in her devastating drama Yellowman.

What makes Yellowman so harrowing is its depiction of the permanent scars a legacy of self-hatred can inflict on children. At Washington's Arena Stage, where the play is making its area debut under the astute direction of Tazewell Thompson, that legacy is painfully and sensitively conveyed by actors Howard W. Overshown and Laiona Michelle.

They play all the characters in Yellowman, but their primary characters are light-skinned Eugene (a "yellowman") and darker-skinned Alma, friends we follow from their childhood in a South Carolina grammar school in the 1960s into young adulthood.

Orlandersmith has written knowingly about children before. Baltimore theatergoers may recall the Harlem boy and girl she played at Center Stage in 2000 in her one-woman show, The Gimmick. In Yellowman, she again captures the exuberant cadences of children's speech, and Overshown and Michelle carry that exuberance over into the unbridled joy they exhibit dashing around the schoolyard.

Alma and Eugene are well aware of the color lines that threaten to divide them. Alma's mother's attitude of being "dark therefore not considered pretty ... dark and large - therefore sexless" is too deeply ingrained for Alma to overlook. Nor can Eugene escape the resentment of his own angry, dark-skinned father. The pair gets taunted by schoolmates as well.

Having only two actors play all the roles isn't merely economical casting. It's also a visible reminder of the extent to which Alma and Eugene embody the attitudes of the people they have grown up with - the self-loathing of Alma's Gullah mother, the violent tendencies of Eugene's father and grandfather, the prejudice of their classmates. Michelle and Overshown do adroit work in these varied roles, particularly when they're required to portray conflicting characters in the same scene.

Alma and Eugene see past the bigotry around them long enough to fall in love. But something else divides them. Though Alma is determined to move beyond this small-minded South Carolina town, Eugene can't envision a future anywhere else. And, tragically, he turns out to be more of a product of his environment than either realize.

As suggested in the published script, the only furnishings on designer Donald Eastman's set are two straight-backed chairs. Michelle and Overshown occasionally move their chairs side by side, but for the most part, they are separated by the width of the stage, an indication of the gulf their own culture places between them.

Yellowman isn't a subtle play - that's probably not possible with subject matter this raw. But it is a deeply empathetic play. When Eugene says of his grandfather, "I recognized the hate in his eyes and saw my own," you pray he's mistaken. And when Alma concludes, "I am my mother's daughter after all," your heart goes out to this bright young woman who realizes that, try as she might, she can never completely rid herself of her mother's bitterness and hatred.

Yet there's an element of hope in the very existence of Orlandersmith's play. It's there in her courage to tackle a delicate and controversial subject. It's in her ability to conjure up a pair of heartrending, all-too-human protagonists. And it's in her prodigious writing skills - which can use words so poetically, they sound musical, or so abruptly, they sound like violent blows. Alma and Eugene may not be able to break the insidious pattern of internal racism, but in telling their story, Orlander- smith loosens its grip.

Yellowman

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and selected Sundays, noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through April 18

Tickets: $40-$53

Call: 202-488-3300

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