Dallas — Colorism. Outside communities of color it is a conversation about skin color as an element of prejudice and discrimination. Within these communities, colorism becomes much more, an intra-racial issue acknowledged but not often discussed outside the group. Dael Orlandersmith picks at the experience scab of light-skinned and dark-skinned black people in Yellowman, a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Anyika McMillan-Herod directed the Soul Rep Theatre Company production of this five-part memory play, now onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Pulling at the thread connecting all of Orlandersmith’s works, Yellowman explores the extent to which the sins of the parents damage the children.
We enter the lives of Alma (Monique Ridge-Williams) and Eugene (Angelo Reid) as they are playing together as children during the 1960s in South Carolina. Alma lives with her mother, Ophelia, among the Gullah/Geechee people of Russellville. Eugene lives on the more prosperous side of town with his parents. One of his grandfathers is still alive, but does not become a part of Eugene’s life until Eugene is an adult. There are other characters, such as Eugene's childhood friends, but Alma and Eugene are the main characters of this narrative. Ridge-Williams and Reid assume all of the other roles, transitioning among character clips and distinguishing them through gesture, physicality and vocal inflection.
The tension in the story slathers forth from the colorism separating the communities and families because of skin tone; some are darker skinned, others are lighter, or "high yellow." Because of these distinctions Alma and Eugene are not supposed to become a couple; Eugene is not supposed to find a darker-skinned heavier-set woman appealing and Alma is not supposed to leave her Gullah world or find her voice. In Yellowman we glimpse two worlds forced apart by decades of the molten sludge of slavery-induced resentment and self-hatred.
This is not an easy play.
Alma is the product of abuse, abandonment, and despair. Ridge-Williams is brave and compelling, adroitly switching back and forth between her drunkenly abusive mother and herself. Her narration and dramatization of the day she met her bio-dad and her mother’s reaction, is stilling.
Reid manages the difficult task of portraying a gentle lover, a bitter father and a mother in denial within the same scene, building toward the story’s unexpected yet understandable climax. Together, Ridge-Williams and Reid cover 20 years in the lives of their characters with honesty and understanding.
M. Scott Tatum’s lighting design is beautifully dramatic, warmly enveloping the action on Douglas Carter and McMillan-Herod’s smartly simple set. On Friday, opening night, the production would have benefited from faster pacing, which has hopefully tightened up in subsequent performances. McMillan-Herod has also added an intermission into a work usually played without one, which adds to the evening's length.
Of her own work Dael Orlandersmith has said humanity exists within a bleak story and we find that humanity through exposing the darkness. Thanks to the performances by Ridge-Williams and Reid, Soul Rep's production meets that challenge.