Yellowman/My Red Hand, My Black Hand
It's nothing: the small space on the color wheel that separates brown from black. It's everything: a few shades in skin tone that divide a father from his son, a woman from her husband, a boy from his childhood friend, a man from his sanity.
Such cruel ironies make it dangerously tempting to think of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman as an issue play, to describe it as an "exploration of intraracial prejudice in the African-American community" or some such thing.
That couldn't be more wrong. The truth is that Yellowman, short-listed for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has such a powerful sense of place and such vividly drawn characters that skin tone takes a backseat to narrative power.
The play, set in a black community in rural South Carolina, follows the dark-skinned Alma and the light-skinned Eugene as they make the complicated transition from childhood friends to teenaged lovers. But these two young people are just the apex of a pyramid of characters seeking a way out of poverty, lovelessness, and violence in a suffocating world where skin color is destiny.
The most vivid white character in Yellowman is the foreman at a railroad job site who smiles down in approval as two black workers beat the crap out of each other. Indeed, this is a world where white racism is pure background, an unpleasant fact of life like a hurricane or a heat wave, more natural than human.
Before Orlandersmith was a playwright, she was an actor, and perhaps that helps explain her remarkable gift for writing dialogue. Even the searing confrontations between Eugene and his dark-skinned father yield a peculiar poetry. The rage, frustration, and self-hatred in her characters are bottled up and shaken, then decanted at just the right moment, pouring out in beautiful, poisonous streams of verbal cruelty.
A slightly different racial conundrum confronts the protagonist in My Red Hand, My Black Hand, a new play from Orlandersmith that's paired with Yellowman in this Vintage edition.
This new work, which strongly resembles an extended poem, explores a young woman's attempt to synchronize the two cultures of her Native American father and her African-American mother. Here, though, Orlandersmith offers a bit more hope: "I've got Red/ Black hands/ I answer to all the voices," her heroine proclaims, and she sounds like she means it.