The term is “Colorism”: A bias based on one’s skin-tone or racial complexion, and it stands at the heart of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman”. The tale of two young people of color struggling to be “somebody” and to make “something of themselves”, “Yellowman” explores issues of internalized bigotry within the same racial group—often the result of numerous episodes of assimilated racism and cultural ‘reinforcement’ over the course of a person’s formative upbringing. Now “The Chance Theatre” in Anaheim California, is daring to confront such admittedly sticky (but timely) issues with the Orange County premiere of this 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, as the fourth offering in their winning 23rd Anniversary Season—and the second before “Live In-Person” audiences. Directed by Khanisha Foster, this two-character romantic drama is being presented on the “Cripe Stage” at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”.
Set in rural South Carolina, “Yellowman” recounts the events in the life of “Alma” –a darker-skinned young African-American woman, and “Eugene” a lighter-skinned African-American man. Lifelong friends, later when their bond turns to love, the different shades of their skin raise obstacles that could prove insurmountable. They know they’re perfect for each other—it’s their relatives and supposed ‘friends’ who are the ones filling them with misgivings and self-reproach. Ms. Orlandersmith has here composed a sort of African-American version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (or at least its equivalent) not shying away from material many people might prefer to leave unspoken. Her parlance and chronology give us a sincere understanding of “Alma” and “Eugene”: They both share the same ethnic heritage and traditions, are part of the same local “South Carolina” community—and both suffer from the same inner—and learned–prejudices regarding race, class, and romance.
Both Stars of “Yellowman” are making their “Chance Theatre” debuts with this production. Julanne Chidi Hill is “Alma” and Dante Alexander is “Eugene”. These are two magnetic stage personalities who manage to provide matching—sterling–and thoroughly believable portrayals wherein not a syllable rings false—and both Actors similarly bring terrific humanity and likeability to their roles. Although they will share the stage throughout, playing side-by-side one another, not all of their time is spent interacting with each other (it happens, but often they’re standing nearby, discussing separate, private experiences.) It’s clear from the start both characters aren’t afraid of working for whatever they get, but this is notably apparent in her, because she’s had to work for much of what he takes for granted. (“I WILL be somebody!” “Alma” exhorts at one point; “Because I want more!”) In addition, each in their own right have been forsaken or abused in some way by those who are supposed to love and care for them.
Once the houselights dim, we meet “Alma” who explains who she is, where she’s from, what her life there was like, and where she hopes to go. In a brilliantly delivered opening monologue we’re also told of how her female family line–and the whole South Carolina “Gullah/Gee-Chee” ethos (based on a Creole language native to the vicinity–) those which she also calls “Ball-and Chain Types”, populated her background, and informed her cultural awareness. These were women who knew of nothing better, she describes, so they never tried for something better: “My mother, women like my mother, and her mother before her, talked about the sun,” she observes at the outset adding despondently, “Staying in it too long creates illusions…” (This is a girl who wanted to shatter those illusions!) She further speaks of how these women—her feminine fore-bearers, “knew their place”: “They weren’t entirely sure as to whether they were entitled to hear, think, or see—truly see! The question marks at the end of their statements were from women who knew their place–and the fact that they had opinions about something as simple as ‘sun-rays’ pulled them from their place. Questioning anything pulled them from their place and made them ‘uppity’!” When this was all they lived and were surrounded by, such women didn’t ‘think’ they deserved better, futilely wishing they could be ‘light-skinned’: “Light and Rich,” she clarifies, adding how ‘High Yella” (meaning lighter-skinned blacks) “were the prize” to win for a husband; “If they could marry a light-skinned man, they would be loved!”
Shortly after, “Eugene”—her confidant and compadre since childhood enters. His preliminary appearance has him coming in and effectively ‘taking over’ her soliloquy—telling of the men in his family, amongst them his dark-skinned father who resented his lighter-skinned son. At first, the two discuss what it was like to be kids in the mid-1960’s. Like most children, they recall the simpler things they enjoyed like watching “The Monkees” and “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” on TV, or the times they would play “Batman And Robin”—he was always “Batman”; she was always cast as “Catwoman” she recalls, (before divulging how she really always wanted to play someone more ‘powerful’–“The Joker or The Riddler” for instance.) Though these times were innocent enough, they both point toward the fast encroaching conundrum in their lives: Lighter skin (“–Light, Bright and Damn near White”) vs. Darker skin–and who between them it was preferential to be pals with. (“Light skinned girls are Bitches!” “Alma” proclaims in bitterness and frustration as she entered Highschool.) These stories of their early life are especially poignant particularly in light of what follows. In one recollection “Alma” tells of a visit from her father and how once he rejected her, her mother in desperation prepared a strange and bitter “Love Root” potion she then forced her daughter to take in hopes of lightening her skin tone and reducing her waistline. The result of such juvenile ‘training’ eventually had “Alma” praying to God to let her be “light and small-waisted instead of dark and heavy.”
“Eugene” too, reflects on how his maternal “Grandfather Eugene”—the man whom he is named after, had actually disowned “Eugene’s” mother for marrying a darker complected man, and was initially hesitant to meet his own grandson and namesake, before the boy gained ultimate acceptance (confiding that it was all predicated on the reason that since he wasn’t “dark”, it pleased his Grandfather to the point that once the old man passed away, he left everything he had to the lad!) It’s also during Highschool that “Alma” and “Eugene” at long last ‘discovered’ each other romantically. Indeed, some of our protagonists’ adolescent interactions and memories make for some of the more readily identifiable (and touching) dialogue in the entire piece! (This includes realizing that what can be one young woman’s perception of “Arrogant” can, on the other hand, be one young man’s idea of “Self-confidence”!)
By and by, life for both “Alma” and “Eugene” does have all the earmarks of a thrilling upturn for them—fulfilling her dream of getting as far away from South Carolina as she can get: Specifically, to New York City, where she asserts, “New York was the great equalizer”—relaxing the early prejudices forced on her. “Eugene” meanwhile keeps their relationship going—and growing—visiting her regularly in the big city, and in the process, he too comes to grasp what life can be like away from a place where you are looked at (and judged) through the myopic lenses of race, class, family histories and cultural expectations. Yet with such beliefs instilled into them practically since birth, can anything but cataclysmic results occur in their wake? Such implications might cause a few to debate whether “Yellowman” is a celebration, or a tacit condemnation, of certain aspects of modern African-American culture (–or any society that puts such superficial assessments as Measurements of Melatonin over Caliber of Character.) This might even cause one to, (perhaps uncomfortably,) query as to whether other races or cultures have equivalent biases in their own right. Do those outside the African-American community hold similar narrow-minded perceptions regarding something that is intrinsically merely skin-deep? (Ginger-phobia? “Dumb Blondes”? How about the age-old “Who’s The Fairest Of Them All’?!) These questions that linger long beyond the house lights coming up prove the power the story and characters have had on us. Moreover, that such ruminations might even be broached upon seeing “Yellowman” points to more of the strength of Ms. Orlandersmith’s storytelling, and Ms. Hill and Mr. Alexander’s abilities to make all of them real. (Either way, on Opening night, it led to a well-deserved ‘Standing Ovation” for everyone involved!)
No doubt aiding this enthusiastic outcome was Ms. Foster’s direction which favors a vivid insight and emphasis on innovative staging, making for genuinely potent and enthralling theater. Be forewarned though, some of the often brutal reminiscences are bound to also loiter unpleasantly in your psyche for a while—like the one “Eugene” tells about the time his light-skinned friend named “Wyce”, (–a crafty, symbolic play on “Weiss”–German for “White”) goes to see a darker skinned classmate whom he felt superior to–ostensibly to see about adopting a puppy dog; instead, in a fit of contempt, he winds up killing the poor animal just to prove his dominance over the other boy. (It’s this same “Wyce” who later advises his ‘friend’ to “mess around” with “Alma”, “But don’t marry her…She’s too dark” he dismissively breezes.)
From a technical standpoint, each of the designers have pulled-together some amazing feats that are comparably worth applauding: to construct an environment for this story to be played out against (including all of the supporting elements) that still make its mark while keeping the Players always at the fore. Scenic Designer Kristin Campbell’s cubistic set is made up of a series of multi-level flats and platforms with a multi-hued, ‘swirl-patterned’ backdrop scattered with pieces of broken dishes, old (empty) photo frames, and shattered L.P.s (—all indicative of a childhood and home-life that was equally tattered and shattered!) On the rear most “upper” platform is a lone chair, akin to what one would have at their dining table—the only ‘real’ piece of furniture employed in the show. Andrea Heilman’s innovating lighting design is itself used inventively to punctuate several key-moment through the use of direct spot-lights emphatically, while at other times, subduing the stage lights to calm (or even intensify) the mood or focus. Just as effective are Wendell C. Carmichael’s “Costumes”, which are comprised of simple fashion choices, but which cleverly indicate the decade being referenced even when the text doesn’t. Sound Designer Darryl B. Hovis also achieves exceptional effects through “sound”—frequently by employing subtle sounds or bits of music played artfully in the distance to punctuate a certain point or story, like the use of pulsating tribal rhythms as “Eugene” relates a decidedly violent or intense chapter in his narrative.
This isn’t your standard, unadulterated “Feel-Good” theater by any means (although there definitely are moments of transcendent joy and hope;) This is for patrons who want to put a little thought and a lot of emotional investment into what they’re watching. Yes, the return to “Live” theater in Southern California currently remains a fairly delicate situation and some precautions have been put in place, but if you value some truly “Can’t Miss” acting like this, you’re likely to find “Yellowman” well worth it. After “Previewing” from September 24th through October 1st, “Yellowman” officially opened on Saturday, October 2nd, 2021, where it is slated to run through Sunday October 24th , 2021. Showtimes are Thursday evenings at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, and Sunday evenings at 7:00 PM with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3:00 PM. “Vaccinated+ Performances” will be held Sunday, October 10th at 3:00 PM; Saturday, October 16th at 8:00 PM and Friday, October 22nd at 8:00 PM (Proof of Vaccination, Photo ID, and a face-covering are required for all “Vaccinated+ Performances”.)
All Photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio (https://trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater” (http://www.ChanceTheater.com) Special Thanks To Casey Long, Oanh Nguyen, Khanisha Foster, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2021 OC Premiere Production Of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman” or Making This Story Possible.