Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, is still daring in how it picks apart colourism in the Black community
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman follows Alma, a dark-skinned Black woman and Eugene (Gene), a light skinned Black man who have grown up together during the 60s in South Carolina. Through tracking the growth of the relationship, Orlandersmith explores the intersection of race and gender in a way I have never seen before onstage.
Colourism can be defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, among the same ethnic or racial group, with those of a lighter skin tone receiving preferential treatment because of their proximity to whiteness. Choosing to zero in on the topic of colourism within the Black community rather than the larger societal issue of racism, shows Orlandersmith’s interest in creating dialogue internally within the Black community rather than externally. Indeed, this is shown refreshingly in the fact that there are no white characters in the play and whiteness is not referred to throughout.
In Alma’s opening monologue, Orlandersmith establishes the binary – darkness is linked to hard work and toil as they would work all day in the sun, whereas lightness is linked to leisure and softness. Nadine Higgin, as Alma beautifully embodies how dark-skinned Black women are not afforded softness. This is poignantly captured when Gene kisses her for the first time. Apprehensive, she raises her hands up in defence before accepting his tenderness, allowing her arms to fall around his shoulders. Earlier on, Alma’s painful retelling of her mother Odelia’s relationship with her father, explains this apprenhension, Alma knows that for dark-skinned women like her, there is a thin and ambiguous line between violence and desire.
Yellowman is beautifully written and for what is essentially a pair of monologues does not feel static under Diane Page’s direction. Higgin, a standout from this summer’s Legally Blonde the Musical, continues to shine here, finding an equal in Aaron Anthony, and their interplay is what makes this show so transfixing to watch. As Alma, Higgin is loud with her confusion and self-disgust, her body quaking with it, whilst Anthony’s Gene is restrained, allowing it to chew him up from the inside out until he tragically bites back at the end. As the only two characters on stage, they effortlessly morph into different characters with a subtle change of voice and posture. Through Orlandersmith’s choice of multi-rolling, both Gene and Alma are forced to embody parts of themselves that they hate.
Skin tone and features are not the only thing passed through the bloodline but also self-hatred. Families are mirrors and through their parents, Gene and Alma learn to hate themselves. Indeed, the title Yellowman is reminiscent of The Bogeyman, and Blackness is seen as something to be scared of; ‘his Jack o lantern’ face. Alma condemns her body from the outset, ‘’I don’t wanna be dark an big-make me pretty God-make me light and pretty!’. Here, Alma is reminiscent of Celie in The Color Purple – when the world and your own mother calls you ugly so many times, you’ll end up believing it. Orlandersmith’s repetitive concentration on the anatomy of the Black body: ‘nappy head’, ‘blue-black’, shows her awareness of how the world sees Black people, particurlaly Black women and how that has taught them how they should view themselves. This is also seen in the often-animalistic way darker skinned Black women are described, ‘panting like a dog’.
As per Orlandersmith’s wishes, Niall McKeever’s set is naked, and this restraint is almost suffocating as you have no other choice but to focus on the two actors and their stories. This feeling is completed by Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s sound design, which almost aware of the heaviness of its topics, is unobtrusive, with sounds reverberating as the characters digest hard truths.
There is a psychological theory that patterns repeating themselves are opportunities for patterns to work themselves out, an opportunity for the cycle to break. The play’s ending, however, abruptly wrenches us from Alma and Gene’s world, and it is left ambiguous whether or not the cycle has been broken, a powerful move which allows the audience to dream about their own resoluton.
Written over twenty years, Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, is still daring in how it picks apart colourism in the Black community, and the fact that it still feels so revolutionary, shows how much further we have to go in unravelling it.
Yellowman runs until 8th October @ Orange Tree Theatre