‘Yellowman’ a Powerful Exemplar for “Colorism”
All kudos to director Derrick Brown and actors Wendy Pearson and Curtis Duncan for a strong and enlightening production, Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith, which opened to a full house Friday night at TAG, The Actors’ Group, located across the street from Dole Cannery Cinema.
Orlandersmith’s memory play, based on her childhood experiences near coastal South Carolina, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting in 2002.
“Colorism” is the prejudice within a community against people with darker skin. Colorism within the African-American community is a topic that Spike Lee, for example, tackled in his 1988 movie musical “School Daze.” Director Brown gives a short history of colorism in the program, mentioning that it affects other populations as well, such as Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. However, within the African-American community it stems from the problems of slavery, that lighter-skinned blacks, with their larger Caucasian heritage, were credited with being more intelligent and allowed to work in the plantation home rather than in the fields. Their greater privileges led to greater resentments.
The two characters in this play are Alma, a dark-skinned African-American, living on a farm with her mother Ophelia, and Eugene, a light-skinned black who lives a more citified existence with his dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother. We first meet them as youngsters who play together with another dark-skinned boy, seemingly oblivious at that point to how their skin color will affect their lives.
However it isn’t long before their parents enculturate them with the prejudice of colorism. Ophelia constantly berates Alma for being dark, which she equates with ugliness, as well as being overweight. Meanwhile Eugene’s father berates him for being light, which his father associates with being pretty and weak. Not that the parents haven’t suffered. Ophelia was abandoned by Alma’s father (he comes back once, takes one look at Alma, and quickly leaves again), and Eugene’s mother was disowned by her father (another light-skinned Eugene) for marrying a dark-skinned man.
Yet Alma and Eugene love each other, and they think they can survive and thrive despite their parents’ bigotry, especially after they graduate from high school and Alma goes off to college and a new life in New York City, with monthly visits from Eugene, who begins to imagine a life for himself there as well.
Orlandersmith has given Alma and Eugene alternating monologues in which they express their own feelings and also take on the voices of the other people in their lives. There are only two actors, but it seems like a much larger cast. The author gave them revealing names: Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish or “nourishing” in Latin, and Eugene, which literally means “well-born” but conjures the image of eugenics and its racist assumptions. Alma’s soul is undernourished by the skin-deep scorn of her mother, and Eugene’s lighter skin proves a crushing burden as he becomes defensive, angry, and violent.
Pearson and Duncan inhabit these roles with an intensity that requires them to reveal the deepest emotions of all the characters they embody: the hatred, the weakness, the susceptibilities to alcohol. (Eugene’s parents rely on bourbon; Ophelia prefers gin.)
Director Brown has created good pacing and a safe place for Pearson and Duncan to explore and deepen all the facets of the characters, and the result is a powerhouse production that cannot fail to move the audience.
I would recommend that audiences pluck up their courage and take themselves over to TAG for this production. Be brave. The actors are amazing, and the theatre deserves your support for supporting this difficult play. Even at its most painful, Yellowman shows us the suffering of other human beings, gives us a chance to walk in the shoes of others, and the experience is cathartic and clarifying.