(Kristi Little as Alma and Kyle Primous as Eugene)
As a white rookie teacher in an all-black school in Cleveland, way back in 1968, I was wary about how my skin color would be accepted in my six overcrowded classrooms. But I was shocked to learn that color tensions were readily apparent among the students themselves—with even the smallest hallway dust-ups peppered with barbed taunts about this boy’s blackness or that girl’s fairer skin.
It was surprising that such intra-racial bigotry existed , and many of those jolts are incorporated in Yellowman, now at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre. Written with poetic precision and an almost primal sensuality by Dael Orlandersmith, this script offers two actors the chance for side-by-side tour-de-force performances. And this Karamu duo, under the tight direction of Fred Sternfeld, accomplishes exactly that.
As we watch Alma and Eugene grow up in a small South Carolina black community, we see how their respective colors and physiques (he’s “high yellow,” she’s darker and a bit hefty) influence their self-perceptions as well as their relationships with family and friends. Alma’s alcoholic mother berates her daughter at every turn, and Eugene develops a festering hatred for his duskier skinned father who seems to despise Eugene for the “pretty” skin tone he inherited from his mother.
Written in alternating monologues with intermittent passages of dialogue, the playwright fashions indelible descriptions of black women working the fields, sweating in the dresses they wear to preserve a shred of femininity. (But the dresses only succeed in making them look larger.) And later, when Alma moves to New York City, she describes how she walks differently in a place filled with new and seductive rhythms spilling out of nightclubs.
Somewhere in the middle of the play, one begins to chafe at the constant references to color—don’t these people have any other conflicts or issues in their life? But then it becomes clear that Orlandersmith is using the repetition as a poet or a jazz musician does, to play variations on a thematic issue that has a powerful and often insurmountable impact on the characters' psyche and outlook. And this is universal, since who among us hasn’t been rendered vulnerable in some way by how we look, and how we are perceived. Using that foundation, the play builds to a shattering conclusion that, while a tad overwrought, has its own undeniable strength.
As Eugene, Kyle Primous is amusingly believable as a goofy grade schooler and compelling as a young man harboring a roiling discontent. Kristi Little brings to Alma a shattering sense of personal emptiness, having been hollowed out by her mother’s constant carping. And together, they leverage each other’s neediness to create a sexual chemistry and a fierce bonding that threatens to torch Richard H. Morris, Jr.’s handsome wooden platform set.
Director Sternfeld, the maestro of the massive musical uber-production, here is working with about 76 fewer actors than usual. But he keeps every beat change razor sharp and brings out poignant dimensions of these two beautifully written characters.
This is a magnificent production, with nary a stick of furniture or a single set change to distract from performances that will stick in your mind for a long time to come.
Through November 22 at the
Karamu Performing Arts Theatre,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077