By Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Kasi Campbell
Through Feb. 26 at Rep Stage
A recent evening marked one of the few wintry days of the season. Snowflakes whipped around, carried by a biting wind, and theatergoers were gently shoved sideways by the chilly gusts. But as the lights lowered inside the Horowitz Center’s Studio Theatre at Howard County Community College and Yellowman began, the sweltering heat of South Carolina descended upon the audience.
At the start of the show, Alma (Kelly Renee Armstrong) explains the role women have played within the African-American community of South Carolina’s Lowcountry (a people known as the Gullah). She tells of the sun, the sweat, the physical labor, and the pain women endured. And she relates how their bodies affected the way they felt about themselves. Many wished to be “light,” both in terms of weight and of complexion, she says, and it’s this desire that lies at the heart of the drama that follows. In the region, lines are clearly drawn between light-skinned and dark-skinned African-Americans, and the tension between the two groups forces them to live separately. The heart of the play follows Alma and her childhood friend Eugene (Jon Hudson Odom), who fall in love despite being from opposing sides. The name of the play comes from the term “high yellow,” a pejorative term often hurled at Eugene, who inherited his mother’s light complexion.
Yellowman only uses two actors to weave its complex, rich narrative, and Rep Stage pulls it off quite nicely, relying on a pair that seamlessly inhabit different roles as the story unfolds. Alma and Eugene speak directly to the audience, guiding it through their lives from childhood on, and throughout they adopt different voices and mannerisms as they describe scenes involving multiple characters. It all comes together fluidly, with Kasi Campbell’s strong direction.
Relating an altercation he had in his youth, Eugene becomes both his father and his childhood self, switching voices and gaits without missing a step. He tells of his father, who was born dark and married a light-skinned woman, which ultimately caused a rift between him and the people from his old neighborhood. Eugene, with light skin like his mother’s, earned resentment from his father, who assumed that Eugene would go through life without the struggles that he himself encountered. As he stands over Eugene with fists clenched, you can see all of the anger he’s bearing. The scene is so vivid, the tension so palpable, it’s easy to forget you’re watching just one man bathed in a single spotlight.
The sets are minimal, but subtle touches here and there go a long way. Rudimentary structures stand on each end of the stage, and beyond there are subtle projections (like the outline of buildings or a hazy photo of trees at twilight) that separate each scene. Anything more would weigh down the performers, who construct everything else out of thin air. Though there isn’t any way to truly see Alma’s ramshackle house or Eugene’s carefully decorated home in the city, these settings are made vivid through the performances.
Despite the weighty content of the script, it often manages to be humorous, especially when Alma and Eugene talk of their childhood games. Their homes were so unstable that the two had to create their own joy, and it’s genuinely fun to watch them at play. Yellowman masterfully switches tones, from hilarious to sensual to tragic, and it’s this quality that really allows both actors and director to shine. The performers effortlessly bring the story to life before the audience, and move it along to its heartbreaking, inevitable conclusion. Toward the end of the play, the action lags a bit, and once you see where the plot is headed you might just want it to happen already. But then the pressure builds once more and sits right on top of you like the Carolina heat.
Watching Yellowman is an enriching experience. With each element of the production smoothly interlocking, Rep Stage offers a nuanced take on intraracial tensions, couched in the classic story of star-crossed lovers.