The power of racial prejudice and bigotry in American life is so great as to constitute a dark sun. Each individual is charged with breaking free from its gravity, lest we be yanked into its orbit and seared beyond recognition. I know, I know—block that metaphor! But such is the primal power contained in Mixed Blood Theatre's production of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, that astronomical language hardly seems out of place.
Alma (Regina Marie Williams) and Eugene (Thomas W. Jones II) introduce themselves at the outset with long, impassioned, and poetical monologues. We quickly learn the central dynamics of their lives: Alma is dark-skinned and big-boned; Eugene is light-skinned, or "high yellow." In their town in South Carolina, this distinction equals destiny.
On a nearly bare stage, Alma and Eugene trace their friendship and eventual romance from childhood to young adulthood. The list of characters soon expands wildly, though the cast remains a duo. We meet Alma's alcoholic mother, who loathes Alma for her dark skin and who descends into her own piteous pool of bile. Eugene's parents, for their part, represent a de facto biracial couple, with his light-skinned mother having crossed the tracks to marry his dark-skinned father. (Naturally, her family ostracized her for her trouble.)
Williams adeptly traces Alma's evolution from tomboy to the self-assured young woman who earns a college scholarship and a crash course in mind expansion in New York. Jones, too, turns in startlingly vivid work, lending Eugene a pained benevolence: He can't seem to fathom why the men in his life—his father, his best friend, his grandfather—are obsessed with skin tone to the point of inhumanity. Neither can any rational observer, which seems to be Orlandersmith's primary point.
Eugene eventually makes his way to New York, where he consummates his romance with Alma. But this is the kind of play in which seconds of pleasure are going to be paid for with years of hurt. Soon enough, the death of Eugene's grandfather draws him back home into an intra-family hate festival. The old man, it seems, has left all his worldly goods to his grandson solely because of their shared "high yellow" status. In a show that idles at 7,000 rpm, this final sequence blows the engine block. Jones flashes virtuosically from one character to another, revving up the resentment until a dead body is bleeding in the front yard.
The play and this production evince a steely heart. A few nods at period pop culture (the Monkees, anyone?) try (and fail) to lighten the mood. But the final notes of resignation, abandonment, and separation linger with unsentimental plainness. Comfort be damned; this is a black hole.
The Brave New Workshop's lampoon of the left (or, more precisely, the Democratic Party) comes at a delicate time. I had assumed that the concept of Democratic opposition, for instance, had disappeared some time ago. Yet though it's a lean meal these days, there's always the hope that the party of the donkey might cook up nicely on a skewer.
It doesn't happen here. Al Gore and Howard Dean have already been caricatured quite nicely, and this show adds little to the notion that, well, you know, Gore is a self-important bore and Dean is a little excitable. The ensemble—Lauren Anderson, Joe Bozic, Mike Fotis, and Kim Sigler—aren't bad; I'd vote for them on a different slate. But they strain to sell this stuff. I came in dying for a laugh at contemporary politics, and managed only a few chuckles. I'll have to get the rest of them the morning of November 8.
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