IN THE emptiness of the Everyman Theatre, two hours before they will explode across a bare stage, Dawn Ursula and Paul Nicholas sit for separate interviews and relate the same story. The play they perform is Yellowman, about an ancient self-destructive bias within the black community that is unknown to much of white America. Ursula and Nicholas' identical story is this: Not a day went by, during rehearsals for this raw, wrenching play, when at least one of them did not break down crying.
Yellowman is a love story separated by skin tone. It comes out of a cruel and idiotic American mindset that long ago decreed light skin the measure of all human beauty. It goes back to years when one African-American calling another "black" was considered a blood libel and black publications carried endless advertisements for skin lighteners. The play continues to a post-civil rights era when the messages on color are subtler but still resonate.
"A hierarchy of skin tone," says Ursula, who connected with the play the moment she read it and recalled her adolescent school days. Nicholas echoes his co-star's words. He remembers his grandmother had a phrase: "Raise the color."
"It meant: Marry lighter," Nicholas says. "My grandmother thought it was better for the race. She was born in 1914. She would have wondered why Eugene" - Nicholas' light-skinned character in Yellowman - "would have wanted Alma," Ursula's character, who is dark and thus less desirable. And never mind Alma's intellect and fearlessness, which carry her to a world beyond Eugene's imaginings.
Yellowman, which opened two weeks ago and runs through April 24 at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., leaves audiences drained. Ursula and Nicholas' performances are emotionally pulverizing. But playwright Dael Orlandersmith's message, about the values we place on perceptions of beauty, and the specific damage within the black community, is also powerful.
"I read the play," said Ursula, "and took out old photos from school. I remembered how the light-skinned girls were considered the beauties. The dark girls, you look at their pictures - there's something in their expressions, their body language. They know what the world thinks of them, and it isn't good.
"The boys, too. I remember two black guys in my school, gorgeous boys, and very fair-skinned. All the girls loved them. They fooled around with white girls, or they dated fair-skinned black girls from another school. That sent very strong signals to me. It said: They really want a white woman. The light-skinned girls were considered the next best thing. And the next best thing was not me."
That was nearly a quarter-century ago. Ursula remembers "fade creams, lightening creams, that were advertised in black newspapers and magazines. I bought some of those for dark spots on my knees and elbows. But I remember using it sometimes on my face and hands, knowing it was never going to work, but doing it anyway."
Ursula's mother owns a day school, and her father teaches at the University of Virginia. She remembers going off to band camp one summer. After two weeks in the sun, she returned home "so dark I was blue-black. My parents didn't recognize me at first. My father looked at me and said, 'You are gorgeous.' He took me into the bathroom and said, 'Look in the mirror.' I saw what he saw. He said again, 'You are so gorgeous.' I was 14. It was a turning point in my life."
Ursula's face glows as she brings back the moment. Nicholas has his own reference points. He is the son of a white father and a black mother, and his skin tone is a mix. He remembers black girls in school telling him, "Oh, you only want to go out with light-skinned girls. You wouldn't be interested in me."
"At first," Nicholas says, "I thought, 'What are you talking about?' But you learn what it means. You find out the damage people do to each other - even within their own families - over different shades of skin. The first time I read this play, it hit such a nerve that I cried. God, the things people do to each other."
In his professional life, the damage can continue. "When I look for work," he says, "I notice I don't get considered for roles that are 'black' characters. They don't think I'm dark enough. When I see parts for light-skinned blacks, I get excited. I know I've got a shot."
Much of this is news to white audiences. "Their reaction is amazing," says Nicholas. "Audiences erupt when we finish. But white audience members tell us, 'I never knew this existed in the black community.'"
"And it continues," Ursula says. "I look at TV commercials and magazine ads and see how many of the black women are light-skinned. These are the little things that shape our culture. We had a college intern last year, a young black girl, who didn't want to walk in the sun. She didn't want to get darker. Yes, we're still dealing with this. Even now. My husband says when slaves were emancipated, the chains were broken but we still put links in our pockets. And some of us carry them around, and some of us still pass them down."
Yellowman is about those links. The performances of Ursula and Nicholas will stay with you for days - and so will the play's poignant, powerful message.