How black is black? That's the kind of incendiary question only a black writer can ask. The issue of internal racism that prejudices some dark-skinned Afro-Americans against others of lighter skin has been raised before; Spike Lee, for instance, touched on the theme in School Daze. Now it makes for an evening of unsparingly provocative theater in Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, which is receiving a blistering production by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in its Studio series.
Yellowman is not an easy play to take, but it shouldn't be easy, for it challenges every viewer, regardless of color, to examine the innate prejudices that fester within. This is theater doing what serious theater does best: present an issue, then pose questions (many of which have no answers). Though the skin-color motif hangs over the story like a shroud, many other issues are raised: At what age does self-loathing begin? How is inferiority instilled in a child? What are the perimeters of prejudice? This drama has been termed a contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet, but a more apt description comes from a friend of the playwright: "Yellowman [is] about good lives doomed for no good reason."
The chronicle begins in South Carolina, when seven-year-old Alma first spies nine-year-old Eugene. She has dark skin; his is light. Why should that matter to a child? Perhaps it doesn't. But when parents impress on that child the conviction that "if only they could be light, they'd be loved," and when children pray, "God, how come You made me so dark? I want to be light," fateful seeds are sown.
As Alma and Eugene mature, they are exposed to a cruel world ("the white man hates us, the dark-skinned negroes hate us") with seemingly nowhere to turn, except to each other. The first serious challenge to their relationship occurs when Alma moves to New York City to attend college. As it turns out, true love can overcome even cultural divides, but home and family are more formidable barriers.
The Rep production, which has been directed with passionate ferocity by Susan Gregg, smartly evokes the seismic changes that occur when Alma arrives in New York. Michael Philippi's Manhattan lighting suggests that even the air is different in the Big Apple. The thoughtful logo artwork that appears on the playbill cover also reminds the viewer that this story is about more than color.
So much has been done here so well, one can only wish that the script shared the laser intensity of the mounting. Yellowman is told in the present tense; the actors narrate and describe every incident while showing us little. It's no surprise to learn that Orlandersmith is writing her first novel, because Yellowman, although apparently written in verse, too often has the feel of prose rather than drama. At times you can close your eyes and imagine you're listening to a talking book in your car. The two-character play runs 105 minutes without intermission, which is too long. Because there's little build from scene to scene, some judicious trimming by the playwright, especially in the early scenes, would not diminish the play's climax.
Yet despite the script's excesses, this Rep staging is so raw it's difficult to think of it as "a performance." How effective are Julia Pace Mitchell and Carsey Walker Jr. as Alma and Eugene? The question is irrelevant; they simply are. Mitchell and Walker work beautifully together, even though as often as not they're not acting with each other. Typical of today's two-character plays, the onstage actors are much preoccupied with portraying unseen characters. Nevertheless, these two are a team; ultimately the harmony and fusion of their work is more moving than either individual performance.
Which raises a concern that has nothing (or perhaps everything) to do with Yellowman. In order to be nominated for a Kevin Kline Award for outstanding ensemble, a play must have a cast of at least three actors. Thus it was that last year's gorgeously performed Rep production of the two-character Stones in His Pockets was excluded from consideration. Now Mitchell and Walker will not be considered. But if this is not ensemble acting, no such animal exists.