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Color Values

Everyman Strikes the Perfect Tone in the Baltimore Premiere of Yellowman

SKIN DEEP: Dawn Ursula and Paul Nicholas go beyond the surface.

By John Barry | Posted 3/23/2005

The term “African-American” is here to stay, but in Dael Orlandersmith’s two-person Yellowman, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. In this Balkanized vision of the Deep South, the phrases “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned” carry all the weight. There may be no love lost between white and black in this small South Carolina town, but that division seems almost abstract, compared to the bitter antagonisms that have cropped up in the “Gullah” country, where many of the darker-skinned African-Americans trace their origins to West Africa and Angola. Yellowman gets its name from the lighter-skinned black aristocracy, which has developed a sort of ascendancy over the patois-speaking, dark-skinned, hard-drinking, hard-working locals in the play’s locale.

The plot centers around an extended romance between the dark-skinned Alma and the lighter-skinned Eugene. It’s a lifelong love story, beginning in childhood, which becomes complicated by the racial prejudices that course through both of their families. Orlandersmith takes us through a series of vignettes extending from the schoolyard to the college dorm, as their romance blossoms. The archetypes that populate Yellowman reflect a small community where these stark differences have all the ingredients of Greek tragedy.

The play opens awkwardly, as Alma (Dawn Ursula) delivers a panegyric to her dark-skinned Gullah mother. Snippets of spirituals, and her poetically tinged embrace of the Deep South, sound, frankly, run-of-the-mill. She describes her mother fondly as “dark, large, and sexless” and at the mercy of thuggish, dark-skinned men. It’s clear that Alma is speaking from a distance, in the cultivated language of the college-educated, upwardly mobile black woman. For a moment, this play seems headed toward a predictable struggle for identity. But the drama of this play revolves around the young, light-skinned Yellowman, Eugene, who finds the melting pot too hot to handle.

As Eugene, who has a dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother, Paul Nicholas has to turn his character into a virtual battleground for all these hatreds. Nicholas negotiates this high-wire act in a spectacular performance, as he trades ripostes between father, son, and grandfather. There’s only so much that one guy can do—particularly when the conflict gets physical—but Nicholas shifts identities and accents with facility. At one amazing moment, he’s carrying on an exchange between Eugene, his father, his father-in-law, and his father-in-law’s father. Technically, it’s a tour de force, but more essentially Eugene is transforming into a dysfunctional hybrid of the self-made African-American. Nicholas never loses touch with the loving, energetic innocence of his core character, but as he slips in and out of skins, he draws ever closer to the anger that has run through his family for generations.

In another fine performance as the stronger, more assured Alma, Dawn Ursula gives the play its backbone. She shuttles between her own character—a young, ambitious dark-skinned black woman—and that of her mother, a poor, overweight, hard-drinking woman who is desperately eager to move around in the whiter-toned world of the light-skinned. But there are bleaker currents in this character as well. Alma begins the play with fond memories of her mother, but she reveals a simmering desire to separate herself from her mother’s world in whatever way she can. Ursula brings the story right into 21st-century New York, where Orlandersmith pokes gentle fun at the sort of transformations that a young black woman from the Deep South may experiment with.

Ursula and Nicholas both have their share of monologues, but despite the overlaps and interruptions that are written into the script, they maintain their emotional bond. Though Eugene’s eyes wander, and he makes out with other women and hangs out with his homies, his love for Alma remains constant and innocent. But Orlandersmith injects an ominous, tragic note into their relationship: By the end of the play, Eugene depends on Alma as an almost maternal figure, and finds himself competing directly with his father for her affections.

The 2005 season is far from over, but this excellent production is one to beat. Regge Life’s confident direction and Dan Conway’s eloquently minimalist set deserve plenty of credit. The Everyman board of directors deserves a little credit, too, for taking a chance on a play that done only adequately would go down in flames. Now they can move on to their spring musical with a clear conscience.

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