Those who believe that we're a product of our environment will have much to ponder
in Dael Orlandersmith's 2002 play Yellowman, now receiving a powerful showing at the Rep Stage (to 2/26). Ms. Orlandersmith's provocative drama offers a rare and privileged look at one aspect of the human condition:
intra-racial prejudice. The play is a quick study on the genetic effects of hatred passed along two classes, across
time. Each loathe and fear the other - the N-word will fly - but it pretty much breaks out along the lines of "have
nots" and the "haves." Whether the divide is farm vs. factory, country vs. town, poor versus rich, it
comes down to us vs. them. To be sure, it's not particular to this culture: you only have to look at any closely
aligned race, religion, or ethnic group - perhaps no further than your own family - to get a sense of jealousy borne out of
kinship. We seem to be hardwired to direct our enmity against those of our own kind.
Set in the Gullah region of South Carolina, this is a combination coming-of-age tale and love story for 2 characters
- one big, dark-skinned female and a fair-skinned male. The play tracks the fate of Alma (Kelly Renee Armstrong) and
Eugene (Jon Hudson Odom) from childhood to their impending marriage. Both actors portray members of their respective
families, assorted friends, and acquaintances along the way, slipping in and out of character to address each other and the
audience. Alma and Eugene each have a hectoring Old Testament parent imprinting negative tapes of self worth,
one she longs to escape while he hopes, on some level, to embrace. If it's true that we look for our parents in
our spouses, then Alma and Eugene are both looking for the same one: their father. For her he's an aspect of beauty
and freedom; for him he's a form of power and accomplishment.
through the composition, like a bass line, is an examination of the concept of beauty or lack of it, and the effects of coping
with its absence by self-loathing, anger, and inebriation. Yellowman comes across as an Expressionistic play
which is episodic in nature and defined by the strong emotions of its archetypal characters; you don't go to this play
so much as to think but feel. On this level, the Rep Stage production succeeds admirably.
Kasi Campbell's earnest and muscular production has a go-for-broke quality to it.
Both of the well-cast actors are fully engaged, playing their roles to the hilt; and together with the design team, they employ
all manner of effective narrative techniques to keep the action moving, and there's a lot of ground to cover. The
rapid pacing has the 5-scene play unfold with the speed of time-lapse photography. At 125, virtually nonstop, minutes
of intense dialogue, this is extreme theatergoing. There's a no win situation here though: had they opted for an
intermission, there would be a dissipation of emotional energy. But by forging straight ahead, it's tough to sustain
the emotional momentum after 90 minutes, especially with the improbabilities of the New York relocation in setting and a melodramatic
Ms. Armstrong, who I've seen in two previous shows, blossoms
here in a more substantial role - she's by turns winsome, churlish, desperate, and jaded as she slips between the young
Alma and older mother Odelia (her hunched posture and slack-jawed vocalization superb). Mr. Odom has, I think, the more
challenging task of delivering a half-dozen distinct characterizations, including Eugene (who first simpers then simmers and
snarls), and is outstanding. His takes on his psychopathic friend Wyce and reprobate of a grandfather are rendered with
studied villainy. His enactment of the ongoing father-son battle has the force of a psychic split. A relative newcomer,
Mr. Odom is sure to find plenty of work in these parts in the near future. Together with Ms. Armstrong, both actors move through
their graceful paces, inhabiting a physical and spiritual world that is striking as it is memorable, particularly when they're
Alma and Eugene seem to have staked out a measure
of freedom with their shared destiny before a sudden twist of fate intervenes. By the shocking finale, the journey for
both which was conceived in innocence, nurtured on animosity, and bounded by guilt, ends in regret. You'll wonder
whether these two were star-crossed lovers or people whose paths should never have crossed.
Scenic designer Terry Cobb has fashioned a minimalist set with a pair of offsetting,
cut-away roofs posted downstage, an inclined ramp spanning the upstage, and a moveable pair of chairs. The dark color
palette, sustained by Dan Covey's lighting and AV projection, against a back-dropped curtain, gives the tableau a cinematic
look, one shot with a color-effect filter. Neil McFadden bluesy sound pointedly enhances the mood. Jessica Welsh's
costumes blend nicely, with a splash of color, here and there, to add vibrancy.
There are many bumps in the road for this show - not all of them pretty.
The script is wordy, the portrayal is stylized and nonrealistic at times, and the trip is a long one; but when the dust has
cleared, Rep Stage has put this one in the Win Column.
meter: 4 hands, a high recommended. This is a powerful theater experience you won't want to miss.
© John F. Glass, February 17, 2012