Scripter Dael Orlandersmith’s searing indictment of the multifaceted racism that scars the lives of two loving souls was nominated for both the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Award when it preemed Off Broadway. It is more than worthy. Told through the interweaving monologues of childhood friends Alma (Deidrie N. Henry) and Eugene (Chris Butler), Orlandersmith creates a hypnotic, undulating theatrical tone poem as haunting as it is brutal. Helmer Shirley Jo Finney admirably guides this perfectly cast duo through every nuance of this first-rate legiter, which launches the 15th-anniversary season of the Hollywood-based Fountain Theater.
Set primarily during the ’70s in rural South Carolina, “Yellowman” follows the coming of age of two African-Americans who bond as children despite the unbearable social pressures inflicted upon them. Alma’s skin is darker than fair-skinned Eugene’s. Through the years, each is bombarded with the ugly realty of internal racism.
Eugene is not accepted and deeply resented by other darker African-Americans. Even Eugene’s dark-skinned father’s self-hatred mutates into resentment toward his own son for “being yella.” At the same time, Alma is constantly berated by her mother for not being “lightah, skinniah or prettiah.” Orlandersmith sets up a spiritual combat that pits the united souls of Alma and Eugene against the perpetual cycle of group shame, guilt, anger and fear that is out to consume them. Fueling this social fire is the life-numbing alcoholism that afflicts both of their families.
Finney creates a masterfully staged dance of life with her ensemble, constantly moving the actors in and out of each other’s environments. Each speaks independently to the audience but never loses the sense of contact with the other. The few times they actually relate directly to each other, either verbally or physically, they exude a rapport that is sensually captivating.
Henry and Butler perform not only the roles of Alma and Eugene but also the personalities of those who affect their lives. Both actors move effortlessly through the rich accents of these South Carolina folk, who speak with the colorful Gullah/Geechee speech rhythms they inherited from their Sea Island ancestors. Butler offers powerful portrayals of Eugene’s intractable father, his well-educated but long-suffering light-skinned mother, as well as his supposed best friend Wise, a malevolent light-skinned Negro who has the sociopathic instincts of a latter-day Iago.
Henry is equally adept at segueing from the needy persona of Alma to the hard-as-nails bitterness of her gin-guzzling mother. Alma demonstrates her emerging intelligence and self-awareness when she realizes that if she is to move beyond her mother’s station in life, she must emulate Eugene’s more cultured way of speaking. Henry personifies every gradation of Alma’s eventual evolution into the superior being she was meant to be.
Finney’s directorial vision is well complemented by the surreal set and graphic designs of Scott Siedman and the evocative lighting of Kathi O’Donohue. Candy Brown’s choreography serves to underscore Alma’s maturation from awkward country girl to uninhibited big-city woman.
This production definitely has strong legs to move up to a midsize Equity house.