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A CurtainUp Review

I am my mother's daughter.
--- Alma.
Our Philadelphia critic, Kathryn Osenlund, liked Yellowman enough to see it at the McCarter Center in Princeton and again closer to home, at the Wilma Theater. I eagerly anticipated its next staging at Manhattan Theatre Club. To cut to the chase, I too found it a special and rewarding play.

Director Blanka Zirka has overseen the show's transfer to the larger of MTC's theaters which probably comes closer to the Wilma than the smaller McCarter Center where Kathryn saw it first. Playwright-performer Dael Orlandersmith and Howard W. Overshown once again make this two-hander feel like a much more populated play, with Overshown especially spectacular. With even the design team almost one hundred percent intact, I have just a few observations to add to the review below.

Yellowman isn't the first play to take off on bigotry and self-hatred within a prejudiced against group. Long before black became beautiful and Negroes renamed themselves Blacks and then African-Americans, the term "high yellow" served to deepen the gulf between people of dark and lighter skin colors. Other fictional characters have struggled with issues of skin color (e.g., Tony Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eyes, in which a black woman obsesses about her desire to be white, dates back 30 years). But Yellowman is a unique theatrical experience, not because it covers never before written about territory but because its still controversial theme is explored without putting the actors on a soap box. It gathers its impact from truly lyrical and writing, vivid performances.

Yes, Yellowman is uncomfortable and its ending a bit too extreme in its darkness but we live in dark, extreme times. What's more, without the play's explosive climax you wouldn't see Overshown's amazing handling of the father and son conflict's bitter conclusion.

The structure of monologues, no more than my usual favorite than Kathryn's, and even the actors playing themselves as young children, works well. That's not to say that a play this heavy on monologue doesn't make you wish for more direct interaction.

Do you have to be African-American to identify with Alma and Eugene? Not if you ever felt yourself turning into the least admired part of your mother or father, not if you ever felt uncomfortable with the way you looked -- whether you did exerciser or diet your way to a new look or, like Alma (Oleandersmith's central character), decided that "I can't change my body, but I can have a new voice."

I should also add a hurrah for the spirit of cooperation among regional theaters that nurtures productions of worthy new plays. Whether Yellowman extends its limited MTC run or moves to Broadway, it is sure to have a continued life at other regional theaters.

Reviews of both the Philadelphia and Los Angeles productions are posted below the current review.
Philadelphia Review
Los Angeles Review
Playwright, Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Cast: Dael Orlandersmith, Howard W. Overshown
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Lighting Design: Russell Champa
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz
Original music and sound design: Elliot Sharp
Running time approx 90 minutes, no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th St. (6th/7th Aves) 212/ 581-1212. MTC website
10/01/02-12/15/02; opening 10/22/02
Seen by Elyse Sommer at 10/18 press preview
Philadelphia Review
Yellowman is a play about a young woman, Alma (Dael Orlandersmith) and her best friend, Eugene (Howard W Overshown) and their particular, singular, and in some respects, universal experience. To universalize, start with the particular -- two childhood friends in the South, with its system of color classification of black people. The story is about "internal prejudice," meaning the prejudice between lighter (yellow) and darker-skinned blacks, which results in an even more powerful internal prejudice: self-hatred.

Two actors, one of them the playwright, speak mostly in direct address to the audience. I'm not one for monologues but what looked as if it would be tedious, wasn't. There's more narration than monologue, and the interaction between the two main characters and other virtual characters keeps the play alive and engrossing. The two actors play all parts, but the stage becomes peopled. Alma, "ugly, big, black" becomes everywoman in her insecurities. As a friend once consoled me, "Everyone is disappointed in their body." You can feel the recognition in the audience. Alva fights the negative self image that most of us experience to some degree, whatever sex or color we are, but she suffers the added burden of her received inheritance of systemic and inward-turned racial hatred.

The characters and situations are carefully delineated, with repetition and a building up of evidence. There are big time generational issues: the remove, the attachment, the racial hatreds, the resentment, the traits handed down, the turning into your mother.

Parents, hers and his, laced with alcohol, are interwoven into the play. Haunted by her mother, big, "dog panting" Odelia, Alma accumulates and internalizes hurtful images of herself as ugly, big, and dark. To say her mother was unsupportive doesn't touch it. Eugene's mother, smelling of perfume and bourbon, is light-skinned, and his father, proud and abusive, is dark. They somehow manage to raise a sensitive boy, but one burdened with their "issues." Where color is tied up with class, at least he is "rich, light, and lives in the city limits." Alma is darker and rural.

There's the inevitability that something is going to go very wrong. You're so afraid it's going to go wrong without its ever having been right, but for a few shining and touching moments, everything is right. It is a kindness to the audience

The direction by Blanka Zizka of the Wilma is crisp yet it allows fluidity. The acting is strong and versatile. Overshown is amazing. The writing -- warm, personable, hard, direct, and intelligent never stoops to "heartwarming." The words have been honed. There's nothing extra. It is not labored, but shows the labor that went into it. Very savvy.

With just two actors it is remarkable that all the people invoked on stage are very specific and don't blend into each other. The acting and the direction have a lot to do with it, but the writing is where the clarity starts.

The set is minimal. In a trend that continues in the theatre, most of it is supplied through illumination and projections, some right-on and seemingly intrinsic to the work (a slice of field-like waving orange light), and some less successful (a sideways skyscraper). The subtle, effective music never intrudes, but underlies and supports.

This is a wonderful play. I have few complaints. Just one area I was less fond of: the idea of adults playing themselves as children, complete with pretend little kid voices. I would have preferred to see some real kids brought in. Later I understood the decision. The two kids weren't the only ones to be played. They are part of the array of characters. Still, I would have liked to see more narration there. While keeping the youthful singing and running around, the play could lose the fake "child" voices.

Yellowman explains that certain black women in the South spoke with question marks at the end of their sentences because they "knew their place." For whatever reason this tendency also exists in France and England in the general population. In the U.S., however, it's "a woman thing." Not just some African American women, but women of different races evidence their insecurity by inflecting their sentence endings upward in a non-authoritative way, as if, according to Dorothy Sarnoff (Speech Can Change Your Life), they are weak or unsure. Some women's power issues, like this linguistic one, still may be more common than is universally realized.

This play, while compelling for the black community, is of interest to anyone who becomes excited by good theater. It should play to audiences of all backgrounds.

February 21, 2001 Update: I reviwed Yellowman's world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center's Second Stage in Princeton and have now seen it at the Wilma Theater. The actors, director, and production staff remain the same, with the exception of the production stage manager.

It is a pleasure to re-visit this play, with its careful choice of words, its intensity and its cadences. The play of light and darkness across the stage complements the theme of light and darkness in people, the skin color, hatreds, self-hatred, family resentments, the searching for love, finding love.

The staging has been slightly adjusted for the stage space -- the McCarter's second stage is smaller than the Wilma stage-- and the lighting has been described as "enhanced." There appear to be more lighting choices, and there is an overall more exact, delineated look. In fact, the lighting and the score together are real partners in this production. They move as one with the actors and the words.

Yellowman is an exquisite and powerful play. It received a rousing standing ovation at the Wilma opening. It will be moving on to the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut and after that it is scheduled for a fall production at the Manhattan Theater Club.

The Los Angeles Review
Director Shirley Jo Finney proves once again that anything bearing her imprint is well worth a look. In this case, there are several other reasons and two of them are co-stars Deidrie N. Henry as Alma and Chris Butler as Eugene in Dael Orlandersmith's powerful and fascinating drama about racial prejudice within the African-American Gullah/Geechee culture in the Sea Islands off South Carolina. The Pulitzer finalist and Blackburn award winner, is given its Southern California premiere by producer Ben Bradley at the estimable Fountain Theatre.

Henry plays Alma, a large dark-skinned beauty, and her mother Odelia, an uneducated field worker whose ingrained sense of black as ugliness extends to her daughter. Butler plays Eugene and everybody else, ranging awesomly from his fair-skinned mother Thelma to his dark-skinned father Robert whose bitter envy of his light-skinned son curdles them both with hatred. Alma and Eugene are childhood playmates who gradually fall in love, despite the prejudices of their parents and community.

Alma bursts with exuberant life from the moment she leaps on stage singing "Miss Mary Mack." If character is destiny, it's clearly depicted here. Poverty-stricken and deprived, Alma cheerfully graduates from high school early and wins a scholarship to Hunter College in New York. One of the play's most delightful passages is the many different ways Alma finds herself walking in that magical city and Henry choreographs the way her hips move in her new high heels and sway to the "various rhythms of different neighborhoods" -- Harlem, El Barrio, Chinatown. Eugene, whose dark father is a self-made man, doesn't know who he is or what he wants. A sweet gentle boy, the manual labor that is all he does after high school makes him a butt of the black workers, including the boss, his father, who label "yellow" boys soft and pretty. When he visits Alma in New York, he tells her after they're married he's going to decide what he really wants to do with his life but somehow we doubt it. An unexpected inheritence from his light-skinned grandfather should open many doors to him but Eugene doesn't know from doors and that's not the story Orlandersmith wants to tell. She interweaves poetic monologues with street-smart dialogue to create a coat of many colors for her star-crossed lovers. She also shows us the ugliness of alcoholism. The deadliest heritage of internal racism is the way parents vent their own pain on their children and it's the playwright's use of this element that gives the play its unforgettable aura of haunting devastation. The crafts team for this production includes sets by Scott Siedman, lights by Kathi O'Donohue, cosutumes by Dana Woods, sound by David B. Marling and choreography by Candy Brown. At The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood, (323) 663-1525 from February 11-May 29, 2005. Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 14.
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