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Yellowman at Orange Tree Theatre | Review

There are some subtle light changes to capture different moods but in this production, there aren’t even chairs for Eugene (Aaron Anthony) and Alma (Nadine Higgin) to sit on, with the stage comprised of a wooden platform, and nothing else. Less is more in a substantial script that has much to say. Yes, it’s about racial tension and division, although rather than delving into the well-trodden path of how white people have both historically and contemporaneously negatively affected the lives of non-white people, the narrative concentrates on how darker and lighter people within the African-American community itself perceive one another.

Aaron Anthony and Nadine Higgin in Yellowman - Photo by Ali Wright.
Aaron Anthony and Nadine Higgin in Yellowman – Photo by Ali Wright.

I haven’t gone for a more tactful or diplomatic description than that – to do so would be a disservice to this hard-hitting (in more ways than one) play, which is engaging and powerful in its directness, telling it like it is. It’s not always easy to keep up with what can be a rapidly developing storyline, covering as it does the duo’s lives from their school years into adulthood, but the large number of off-stage characters the audience encounters increases the story’s credibility. It is entirely reasonable to expect them to come across various people over the years.

Alma hates herself, though the lack of self-esteem was embedded into her by her mother Odelia, whose own lived experience led to a belief that being “black black”, that is, a dark-skinned black person, sets one apart from light-skinned black people, and not in a good way. Eugene, who happens to be light-skinned, eventually falls in love with Alma, and there’s a lengthy but nonetheless amusing scene exploring the pair’s coming of age, with talk of her getting a training bra and him getting the urge. A change of scene in which Alma accepts an offer to study in New York City somewhat frees her from the oppression of living in South Carolina, but much as she enjoys the cosmopolitan and multi-faceted nature of big city living, it’s a case of taking the girl out of small town tyranny but not quite the other way around.

Despite family advice, both Eugene and Alma are determined to stay together, which does (at least for me) give the play a whiff of West Side Story, and like that show, not every character who is alive when the curtain rises is still around when it falls. The programme only lists two actors playing two characters, but their skill shines in taking on a number of other characters, including both sets of parents, Eugene’s maternal grandfather, and some childhood friends whose roles, although relatively minor, prove important in the sense that the play emphasises how prejudice and discriminatory behaviours are acquired and taught rather than something innate.

It’s intelligent stuff, even if the ending gets a little contrived and borders on melodramatic. The play provides some insight into female misogyny, though it’s the interaction between Eugene and his father Robert that drew the most gasps from the audience. The older man snaps in a Southern drawl, “Jes ‘cause I made ya, don’ mean I love ya”, such is the depth of hatred that runs between (some) darker and lighter-skinned black people. There are some amusing moments too, mostly in the main characters’ ‘first time’ experiences in anything and everything from their first kiss to ordering at the ‘cocktail bar’. These more upbeat proceedings are never superfluous or distracting from the weightier matters in the story, but rather portray the highs and lows of real life. A fellow patron said as we were filing out after the show that she wanted to see it again – high praise indeed for this absorbing and intense experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Alma and Gene have grown up together. She dreams of a life beyond the confines of their small town. But when their friendship develops into something more serious, Gene’s fate becomes tragically intertwined with hers and they can’t escape the legacy of racism and the tensions within their own community.

Twenty years after it premiered and received a Pulitzer Prize nomination, Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, set in the 1960s Deep South, is a moving and deeply pertinent play for now.

Eugene –
Aaron Anthony
Alma – Nadine Higgin

Director – Diane Page
Designer – Niall McKeever
Lighting Designer – Rajiv Pattani
Sound Designer – Esther Kehinde Ajayi
Casting Director – Sophie Parrott CDG
Intimacy Director – Rachel Bown-Williams
Dialect Coach – Aundrea Fudge
Deputy Stage Manager – Vicky Zenetzi
Assistant Stage Manager – Beth Brown


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