- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

Dael Orlandersmith’s bold, poetic two-person play, “Yellowman,” examines the hierarchy of color in black society and how equating lighter skin with attractiveness and superiority causes damage deeper than the epidermal layer.

Growing up in New York City, Miss Orlandersmith didn’t have much experience with the concept of “high yellow,” a derogatory term for lighter-skinned blacks, but she could see its emotional and racial ramifications.

“Yellowman” is the result of those observations about her relatives, but you also can detect some personal pain at work. Set in the 1960s and ‘70s — evoked in a simple butter-yellow set by Donald Eastman — the play’s heroine, Alma (Laiona Michelle) is constantly berated by her mother for having darker skin. In backwoods South Carolina, black is not beautiful but a fate that condemns a woman to poverty and exploitation by men.

Beyond that, Alma is also made to feel ashamed of her size (bigger), her hair (nappy) and her face (strong, meaning she doesn’t resemble the more Caucasian-featured Halle Berry or Lena Horne).

To be reviled by your own family because of your genetics is devastating, and it is inevitable that Alma turns this hatred upon herself. However, to her credit, she projects this loathing and anger outward, making her determined to escape small-town South Carolina and find her true beauty in New York.

The counterpoint to this rural Juliet is Eugene (Howard W. Overshown), a light-skinned Romeo for whom everything has been easier because of his complexion.

Not exactly everything, because his darker father loathes Eugene’s skin color and all of its benefits in society. Like Alma, Eugene turns this anger on himself, letting it fester inside him.

In this play’s happier first act, the duo become instant soul mates in the schoolyard, singing the theme from “The Monkees” TV show while lolling in the grass. As portrayed by Miss Michelle and Mr. Overshown with all the gulpy vivacity of youth, friendship is a joy to behold. He encourages her to run as fast as she can (the opposite of her mother’s advice to quit making a spectacle of herself), and she helps him slow down and think.

Their households are twin dens of booze and violence, so Alma and Eugene seek refuge in each other, first as children and later as touch-starved teenagers. Even when Alma moves to New York to attend college, the bond between them cannot be broken. Their love was always under the skin.

“Yellowman” is at its deftest in the beginning, as we watch Alma and Eugene grow up and stake their claims in this world despite being raised by people who hate them for the way they look. Miss Michelle is particularly adept at capturing the gangly energy of being a little girl, and she is also memorable as a young woman discovering that she is indeed sexy and beautiful.

Mr. Overshown also engages as the young Eugene, but he really comes into his own as the character ages. The serious, alert little boy becomes a soulful man who does not abuse the privileges skin color has afforded him. Mr. Overshown is most touching in his love for Alma, in expressing the feelings that amaze and humble him.

The power of their love carries “Yellowman” to epic heights, yet the play falters in the second act, when it all dissolves into a glob of alcoholism, miscarriage and murder.

The characters of Alma and Eugene are so strong and Miss Orlandersmith’s language is so heightened that the play does not need this unwelcome blast of ghoulish melodrama.

The effect of color hierarchy is explosive enough.

**1/2

WHAT: “Yellowman” by Dael Orlandersmith

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 18.

WHERE: Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth St., SW

TICKETS: $40 to $53

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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