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The Yellow and the Black 

Gradations of color provide a palette for hate and the subtext for an emotionally engaging drama of life in the '60s South

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
"Yellowman," if my memory has not rotted away, was the stage name 20 years ago of an albino reggae singer from Jamaica. The play on now at Berkeley Rep has nothing to do with him. But he called himself "yellow" because he was pale black, and the hero in Dael Orlandersmith's provocative two-person drama carries the same stigma -- or privilege -- in his '60s-era South Carolina town.

Eugene is a light-skinned boy born to a very black father named Robert Gaines, who works as a foreman in the local rail yard. Eugene's "hi yella" mom intimidates the neighbors with her skin tone and uppity manner. The neighbors scorn Eugene as the child of a mixed marriage; even Gaines resents his son's yellowness. One girl who doesn't resent Eugene is Alma, the intelligent daughter of a heavy, alcoholic, and very dark "geechie" woman named Odelia. Eugene and Alma fall in love, but the tension between their families -- Odelia pushing Alma to marry a light-skinned man, Eugene's parents resisting -- nearly undermines their relationship. "If ya wanna mess with somethin' dark, that's fine," says Eugene's pale, proud, bitter old grandfather. "But don't marry nothin' dark."

This story unfolds from two actors sitting on stools, like storytellers, on a simple raked stage with a backdrop of brownish clouds and power lines (designed, like the simple costumes, by Annie Smart). Deidrie Henry and Clark Jackson inhabit all the characters with a powerful command of voice and tone. Orlandersmith tends to write solo shows (Monster, Beauty's Daughter), and Yellowman is basically a pair of woven-together solo performances.

At first this setup is confusing, because Eugene and Alma start in the present as adults, then move back in time. Soon the actors range freely among three generations of multicolored family members. (It doesn't help that Eugene's yellow grandfather is also called Eugene.) But Henry and Jackson do such terrific work with voices -- from Odelia's Gullah (Atlantic Creole) accent to Grandpa Eugene's thin and nasty whine, not to mention Alma's and young Eugene's at every age between grade school and close to 30 -- that the story resolves into something engaging and clear.

The lighter and darker citizens of Russellville hate each other the way squabbling petty siblings can hate, and Eugene, in particular, wants out of this pattern. His grandfather had to fight off "crackers and dark-ass geechies" to attain his position in the town. (He's a retired foreman at Georgia Pacific.) Robert Gaines, with his dark skin, married into the family, went up against Grandpa Eugene for the foreman job, and eventually took over. He resents having to grapple with Grandpa Eugene's prejudices and transfers that anger to his son. When young Eugene brings Alma to the house, Gaines is drunk and mean enough to grope her, as a challenge to Eugene: "Yeah, I touched dat ass," he says, talking Gullah on purpose, "'cause ya ain't a man. Yeah, I touched dat ass, an' I'ma touch it again."

The racism of Russellville is a virulent muck that Eugene and Alma both try to escape, and the irony is that Alma -- without yellow skin -- finds her way to New York. In one eloquent scene, she settles in a cocktail car on the Georgia Pacific line while Eugene, outside, works at his new job in the rail yard.

Jackson plays the men beautifully; he's a brilliant shape-shifter who moves from one end of Russellville to the other with a fine sense of how "geechie" turns into "hi yella," and how Eugene must feel in the middle. Henry does just as well with the women, especially Odelia when she gets drunk at a dinner party thrown by Eugene's family. "Alma, you an' Gene gonna make some pretty yella babies!" she hollers, to everyone's deep consternation.

One flaw in Orlandersmith's script is that it sometimes sounds written, more like an acted-out short story than a work of dialogue. Her plot also feels misshapen: You expect the show to climax with Alma's escape to the big city, but so much needs to happen afterward that the momentum goes slack. These are details, though. When the voices take over, that written tone vanishes, and a show that delivers as much emotion as Yellowman in about 90 intermissionless minutes hardly needs to worry about suspense.


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