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Howard W. Overshown and
Dael Orlandersmith in Yellowman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
During the discussion that followed a recent matinee performance of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, facilitator Merry Alderman was quick to point out that the conflict depicted in the play between dark-skinned and light-skinned African-Americans implied a much more universal strain of intolerance. For instance, she said -- and, later, at least one audience member concurred -- there is the animus that often exists between German Jews and Eastern-European Jews.

True enough; the self-focused bigotry that's one of Orlandersmith's worries might be festering at this very moment wherever you place your finger on a map of the world. Also true is something else that the dramatist scrutinizes with so much honest concern and unfortunate authenticity that you want to hang your head and weep: namely, the damage parents do to children in routinely calling them "worthless." Indeed, there may be no more heartbreaking line in contemporary dramatic literature than the one here that goes, "Jes 'cause I made ya don' mean I love ya."

Although Orlandersmith hasn't written a play that limits its message to one segment of the population, it nevertheless is palpably about the dislike and distrust, not to say hatred, that exists between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. That, along with parent-child fractiousness as it arises from the situation, is what the playwright confronts and exposes with every incensed molecule in her body. Not for her is the view of differing skin tones that is celebrated by Langston Hughes.

The very specific two-actor tale Orlandersmith tells is a thwarted love story involving Alma (Orlandersmith), a heavy, dark-skinned woman, and Eugene (Howard W. Overshown), a light-skinned man. They meet in their Russelville, South Carolina hometown when she is seven and he is nine and they are romping on a school playground with a dark-skinned pal named, ironically, Alton White. At first, they're just playmates but, by the time they reach adolescence, Alma and Eugene are in love. (By then, the difference in skin color has taken a toll on the Eugene-Alton friendship.) The young couple's devotion endures

Dael Orlandersmith,
writer and star of Yellowman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
even after Alma wins a scholarship to Hunter. Eugene starts to routinely visit her in Manhattan and, eventually, they become engaged. But a happy ending isn't to be, since the friction between Alma and her mother, Odelia -- and between Eugene and his parents, Robert and Thelma -- has set off too many emotional fires for the young people to extinguish. Showing the seemingly innumerable ways in which the clashing biases play out is one of Orlandersmith's accomplishments as a dramatist; it's also one of the sad truths she observes as a humanitarian.

The playwright's chronicle of families in destructive turmoil is complex, but she unfolds it simply. Two lightweight chairs sit on a stage at the back of which is a ramp sloping down from stage right to stage left. The ramp (Karla Zieglerova is the designer) may be meant to suggest the hierarchy that skin tone eventuates, but the actors only scamper up and down it from time to time. Mostly, they sit or stand near the chairs -- sometimes facing each other, sometimes facing away. When they pretend to be children, which both Orlandersmith and Overshown do without cuteness, they romp across the stage. When they're meant to be enamored, they cuddle and, during one sequence, dance -- but they do so back to back.

Since the current production of the play is the fifth on which Orlandersmith and Overshown have collaborated with director Blanka Zizka, Orlandersmith has had plenty of time to refine her script, and both she and Overshown have had time to refine their performances. The three have packed nuance into everything they do. When Orlandersmith and Overshown switch from portraying Alma and Eugene to personifying the family members and friends they're recollecting, they do so smoothly. It's interesting to note that, though Orlandersmith is the author and has apparently based her plot on distant relatives' stories, the more demanding role is Overshown's. He's the one who engages, rather artfully, in the calamitous father-son struggle that ends Alma's and Eugene's hope to have a life together. This is not to say that Orlandersmith hasn't supplied herself with some marvelous opportunities. In one speech, she talks about realizing that she's beautiful, and it's one of those magical stage moments when someone suddenly becomes what she proclaims she is. Suddenly, the long plaits hanging many inches past Orlandersmith's shoulders become even more attractive, her torso becomes Rubenesque.

Howard W. Overshown in Yellowman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Yellowman, which was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize, has the power to stagger; yet some may feel that Orlandersmith's decision to perform the piece with only herself and one other actor has led to a few drawbacks. As skillfully as Orlandersmith and Overshown do their jobs, there are a couple of times when a patron might long to see a full complement of actors employed here. Also, Orlandersmith writes the young Alma and Eugene as children completely devoid of prejudices of their own, but she never explains how -- given that they grew up in homes full of discouraging words -- they managed to retain their innocent acceptance of each other.
Implied throughout Yellowman is the self-hatred instilled in African-Americans as a result of living in a predominantly Caucasian society. In this, the play joins a lengthening list of works in which blacks destroy -- or nearly destroy -- themselves out as a frustrated response to unequal treatment. If progress in this area is going to continue, it'll be thanks in part to the unflinching contribution of such plays and the conciliatory contribution of playwrights like Dael Orlandersmith. Here's hoping that audiences mixed in every possible way turn up fast.

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