If most plays about race tackle that touchy topic in literally black-and-white terms, Dael Orlandersmith's 2002 play "Yellowman" favors shades of black. Brace yourself as the playwright's skin-deep insights soon go deeper in a fine Rep Stage production.
For all its thematic integrity, there are times when Orlandersmith's socially pointed, two-character drama seems on the verge of becoming overly didactic and static. Bear with her play's message-on-the-sleeve passages, however, because its dramatic substance comes across in the most crucial scenes.
Director Kasi Campbell also does her part to ensure that you'll care about two characters who spend much of their time sitting on chairs spaced just far enough apart that both monologues and dialogue seem plausible at that distance.
The stage design by Terry Cobb otherwise consists of little more than a central wood floor that is backed by a wood ramp and flanked by architectural fragments evoking rural southern houses. There are slide projections by Dan Covey on a rear screen whose imagery reinforces the Spanish moss-draped South Carolina landscape, but these slides are all so gray-hued and ghostly that your attention can't wander into standard tourist fantasies. Covey, who also did the lighting, transforms the South Carolina setting into a dreamy state.
So, that means you don't have any choice other than to pay attention to the Gullah dialect-flavored words that tumble out from two young adults, Alma (Kelly Renee Armstrong) and Eugene (Jon Hudson Odom), who have been friends since their childhood in the 1960s. Indeed, their account of their upbringing includes scenes in which they revert to child-like voices and playground-appropriate pantomime. They also take on the voices of their respective parents, because this is a tangled family story.
Although the actors understandably have their share of stilted moments as they carry that considerable narrative burden, they're always convincing as they inhabit what amount to multiple roles. Additional performances seem likely to bring out the play's emotional power to an even greater extent.
On the face of it, "Yellowman" is the story of how two African-American people growing up in the late 20th century, the dark-skinned Alma and the light-skinned Eugene, confront parental disapproval of their friendship evolving into a romantic relationship.
As the play delves deeply into the history of both their families, it is clear that racism has become internalized in jolting ways. The Jim Crow-era institutionalized racism through which whites treated blacks as second-class citizens obviously has left lasting scars on both families, but the fresh wounds here involve contemporary family members adhering to the belief that lighter skin tone is preferable to a darker tone.
Eugene's relatively pale skin color makes him "high yellow" according to this skin pigment spectrum, whereas the very dark-skinned Alma is considered to be of a lower class. He belongs to a family that thinks of itself as upwardly mobile; she belongs to a more rural family, and she has the Gullah accent to further put her in her place.
If the lighter-is-better cultural belief has its origins in a slave plantation society in which white masters decided who would work in the master's house and who would work out in the fields, Orlandersmith's play serves as a reminder of how black society was freed from slavery a long time ago and yet perhaps not entirely freed of what became an internalized belief that equated lighter skin with greater worth. It's enough to make any of us hesitate before taking a long look in the mirror.
"Yellowman" runs through Feb. 26 at Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $22- $33; student tickets with ID are $12; Wednesday performances are pay what you can. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun