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Yellowman | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Series

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When a play moves beyond itself and becomes so engrossing that all else falls away, it’s almost alchemical. No one is quite sure how it happens, but all can feel it when it does.

 

By Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Susan Gregg
Through February 5, 2006

Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, the Repertory Theatre’s current Studio show directed by Susan Gregg, is a moving, haunting tale about a brand of racism that exists intraracially in the African-American community: colorism. This production has all the powerful ingredients: a great cast, good direction, an innovative set. And yet, it still falls short. The production is good, make no mistake, as shows at the Rep usually are. But given the material at hand in Orlandersmith’s script and the two fine young actors who are charged here with bringing life to it, the fact that this show isn’t completely heart-stopping is all the more disappointing.

Yellowman has two major characters, Alma (Julia Pace Mitchell) and Eugene (Carsey Walker, Jr.), and the play is the story of their lives. They meet in elementary school, become fast friends, and—as they get older—this friendship blossoms into love. The story is told by Alma and Eugene through flashback and reenactment. They spin the tale of their lives, and inhabit the other characters that orbit their story (Alma’s mother and both of Eugene’s parents are the most influential). None of this story is particularly original or extraordinary on its own (how many times can we hear about the pitfalls of young love?), but another force is at work here, and that force is colorism.

Eugene is as light-skinned as Alma is dark, but despite the commonality of their race, the cruel shadow of this innocuous disparity looms over their lives, manifesting itself as social and economic division, plain awkwardness, resentment, and, ultimately, hatred and violence. What Orlandersmith does with Yellowman is brilliant and devastating: We are allowed to observe innocent, youthful love corrupted and destroyed by a force as ingrained as, well, skin color. We see that, in this world, all things are distorted by the lens of colorism, and that escape is impossible.

As the two young lovers, Mitchell and Walker are exceptional. As the rest of the characters in the story, they’re outstanding. The script often requires multiple characters in one scene, which puts actors into the position of conversing with themselves. This is, of course, difficult to pull off, but both actors are up to the challenge. Gregg’s direction is mechanically solid; she makes excellent use of Michael Philippi’s simple and innovative thrust stage and his subtle light design.

When a play moves beyond itself and becomes so engrossing that all else falls away, it’s almost alchemical. No one is quite sure how it happens, but all can feel it when it does. One key is that the material has got to be dangerously close, and not just in physical proximity. One wonders if there is something that Gregg could have done to put this show over the top, or if the audience, which was almost entirely white, is naturally going to keep the material somewhat at arm’s length. One thing is certain: Coming so tantalizingly close to a truly overwhelming theatrical experience, as this production of Yellowman does, makes the fact that it doesn’t get there a real shame.
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