Updated: Nov 16
"...part performance art, part story-theater, part epic poetry, part soap opera, and part Romeo and Juliet."
Discrimination can come in many forms, and Dael Orlandersmith’s avant-garde think piece called “Yellowman,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, now playing at Chance Theater through October 24th, is an edgy and provocatively written exploration of an infrequently addressed one.
Both Alma (Julanne Chidi Hill; BBW Nom: “Die Mommie Die”) and Eugene (Dante Alexander; Apple TV: “The Shrink Next Door” w/Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd) have known the difficulties of growing up black in the deep south, but have had very different experiences.
Approaching verse drama at times, “Yellowman” maintains a strong connection with both the theatre of today and of the past. Khanisha Foster's direction against the stark, splatter-painted platform levels of Kristin Campbell’s setting provides both detachment from the subject matter, while maintaining an epic sense of possibility. Interestingly, chips and pieces of broken glass and debris are infused into the walls for effect, giving the audience a feel of a tough, disjoined neighborhood.
But with the help of Andrea Heilman's dizzying array of lights, and Darryl B. Hovis’ dramatic sound effects, she makes sure the audience's focus never drifts from the actors, who create, over the course of the performance, the wide array of locations and attitudes that follow the show's central couple through 20 years or so in their relationship.
The overall diegesis of the play presents the couple as childhood friends and subsequent lovers who are raised in South Carolina's Gullah culture, which pits the descendants of West African slaves (who maintain a centuries-old dialect) against the light skinned ("high yella") blacks who disdain them for their dark hues and different ways. Alma is the ambitious daughter of a slovenly woman who has been so badly treated in her own life that she constantly discourages her daughter and disparages her for her physical appearance.
Eugene, the Yellowman of the show's title, comes from a more well-off family, in which his own father resents and disdains his son's fair-skinned appearance, feeling that he's had life far too easy.
And that causes no end of troubles for Eugene, culminating in the play's harrowing final moments. The story eventually takes Alma to New York where she tries to remake herself in every way except for her relationship with Eugene.
They eventually grow to love each other, but must learn to deal with their own negative perceptions, and the perceptions of those around them. They consummate a physical relationship and plan a life together, but a tragic turn of events following the funeral of Eugene's maternal grandfather dooms their chances of ever finding happiness.
Gloomy stuff, and with precious few moments of hope or uplift in the story. A section where Alma revels in her embrace of New York and all the wondrous differences and variety it offers in contrast to South Carolina is like a cool glass of lemonade in the stifling atmosphere set up in the main body of the play. Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume design helps set the mood for those scenes of transformation.
But despite the difficult subject matter, “Yellowman” is frequently successful at avoiding complete bleakness, with a decent amount of levity, potent emotionality and success to be found in the pain. Ms. Hill is even able to smooth over the more difficult scenes with an unusually flowing poetic style. Her brilliant opening monologue, describing her family's history in South Carolina, are almost epic in scope, presenting powerful images and precisely describing Alma's life and ancestry. She also uses the repetition of key phrases to underscore her points and her characters' emotional states of mind. Ms. Hill’s flair shines through in her portrayal, and it's really impossible to imagine her character speaking any other way.
As performers, regardless of weight or composition, both Ms. Hill and Mr. Alexander make all these moments work beautifully. Julanne Chidi Hill’s transformation from a poor Russellville girl to a more suave, sturdy New York sophisticate is heartening, and Dante Alexander’s dramatic (and usually confrontational) conversations with his father and grandfather are striking in their dramatic simplicity and effectiveness.
I could even relate somewhat with their sense of escapism from their plight. Growing up on a dirt-poor farm in rural Kentucky in the '60s myself, I could see how, as children, their go-to theme song from the Monkees took them from the reality of their troubles to another, unsullied place, if only for a short while.
Orlandersmith's script is really unconventional in structure to that effect; part performance art, part story-theater, part epic poetry, part soap opera, part Romeo and Juliet, and a breath of fresh air in its form and structure. It might even be described as a sort of bluesy theater ballad for two actors.
The two actors, both on stage for the full one hour, 50 minutes of the play's single act, touch each other only rarely and engage in direct dialogue with each other even less often. Most of the time they are reporting, sometimes over each other's shoulders, what has happened, or is happening, or is about to happen.
This is most curiously the case in a scene in which we are to envision them in the act of love — during which both are describing for the audience their individual sensations and responses. Other writers have led us into the minds of people having sex, or even committing violent crimes, but I cannot recall an instance in which the external event has been quite so subjugated to the interior monologues of both parties. That Orlandersmith manages to make the scene both erotic and enlightening is genuinely remarkable.
Like staged poetry, the language used in the manuscript is sometimes elegant, often lyrical, and at other times as earthy as a Bessie Smith blues. Alma, as the young heroine, moves from naïve country girl to Hunter College student in a smooth arc, overcoming conflicts with strength of will and grace of spirit. Eugene, the young man, faces more dangerous trials, but seems about to accomplish the same feat of survival until he is engulfed by the play's ultimate act of violence.
All of the play's characters, including Alma's blowsy mother, Eugene's drunken parents and tight-lipped grandfather, friends, teachers, and men and women in the background, are brought to life by these two remarkable actors, Julanne Chidi Hill and Dante Alexander. They, as well as Director Foster, deserve great applause for the technical skill, intense energy, and astonishing physical and emotional presence they bring to bear on each of these characters.
In short, “Yellowman” is a powerful evening of theater, though it may be argued to be less persuasive as a polemic about the issue of prejudice based on skin-color than it is as a telling of a tragic story about two very appealing and thoroughly human young people.
The Orange County Premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman” continues through October 24th on the Cripe Stage at Chance Theater, Anaheim. Directed by Khanisha Foster, Stage Managed by Bebe Herrera. Full vaccination and masks are required for entrance. For performance times and ticket information, please visit https://chancetheater.com/yellowman-tix/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio