The first words the audience hears in "Yellowman" are a vivid evocation of what it's like to toil in summer under the South Carolina sun.
The sun, we are told, can make you see things that aren't there. The sun is something you hear.
And that's ironic, because the performance space in the spare and poetic production running at Rep Stage in Columbia seems perpetually cast in shadow. But as theater-goers' eyes struggle to pierce the subtly modulated layers of gray, we end up seeing with more clarity than we did before.
Playwright Dael Orlandersmith's best-known play is set in the present and examines the caste system in South Carolina's African-American Gullah community, in which status is determined by differences in skin tone. It traces the budding romance between two childhood friends as they battle prejudice in their school, friends and families.
"Yellowman" has just two actors, though each plays several roles: Alma, portrayed with great naturalness by Kelly Renee Armstrong, is poor, plus-sized and dark-complexioned. Though her mother teaches the girl to loathe herself for being a "fat, black ugly t'ing," that message does battle with the girl's innate optimism.
Her playmate, Eugene (depicted with an appealing awkwardness by Jon Hudson Odom), seems to have it made. His family lives in a nice house, and the light golden tone of his skin places him on top of the social heap. But Eugene's dark-skinned father constantly belittles the boy as "yellow" — in other words, as spoiled, cowardly and weak.
"Yellowman" was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and Orlandersmith's great strength as a playwright is the richness and specificity of the word pictures she paints. It's difficult, for instance, to forget the image of Alma's mother, Odelia, who has just been humiliated by the girl's father, lying in the middle of the blacktop road "panting like a dog."
But the play's lush verbiage also is its weakness. To justify using an elevated and introspective prose, the play must be narrated in the past tense, and the result is two serial monologues. Though Alma's and Eugene's lines frequently are intercut, the actors spend far more time addressing the audience than they do each other, and the effect can be enervating.
On the rare occasions when the actors engage directly, the show gets a noticeable jolt of energy. Director Kasi Campbell does what she can to vary the static stage pictures, having the characters engage in clapping games on the schoolyard or run around with arms extended.
But Campbell's options are limited by the script, as are those of set designer Terry Cobb and lighting designer Dan Covey. Though Orlandersmith specifies that the stage is to be bare except for two chairs, Cobb ventures to add two overhead portions of a roof with eaves. These overhangs are identical, which serves to reinforce the similarity between the two main characters, while the world remains fixated on the differences.
In addition, a series of mostly black-and-white images, such as a child's large eyes peering through a lace curtain, are projected onto a screen in the rear of the stage. Though they provide a welcome visual break, they'd set the mood more effectively if they were less literal.
As a result, the entire burden of the show rests on its two hardworking actors, and it is to Campbell's credit that she cast them extremely well.
The only scenes in which Armstrong and Odom aren't completely believable occur on the playground. Physical coordination is second nature for most adults and is difficult to unlearn. Armstrong and Odom haven't yet mastered a young child's way of moving as though the arms and legs are barely acquainted with one another, let alone with the rest of the body.
But Armstrong, in particular, has an almost uncanny access to her emotions. When Alma triumphs, the actress' face radiates real joy; when her character is frustrated or sad, we can see tears glitter in the corners of her eyes.
Odom is at his best when exposing the tentativeness and insecurity that lies beneath Eugene's handsome surface. His facial moments are genuine, but heartbreakingly small and tight.
Odom is slightly less convincing when portraying Eugene's parents. Though the actor adopts standard stances to clue in the audience that he's now portraying a different role — a time-honored technique — the transformations never extend to his face, and the bullying father and his alcoholic wife remain just the outlines of characters.
But these few lapses are at most a minor and fleeting distraction.
Word by word and image by image, "Yellowman" gets under our skin.
If you go
"Yellowman" runs through Feb. 26 at Rep Stage on the campus of Howard County Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. $12-$38. Call 443-518-1500 or go to repstage.org.