(The current show at Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill is "Yellowman", by Dael Orlandersmith. )
When I was in high school, I had a friend. Black guy. We were both on the football team. After an away game, we stopped at a convenience store. The owner didn’t glance at me, but he followed my black friend around the store, staring at him.
We paid for our stuff, and walking out I said, “Did you see that guy? He was all over you, just because you’re black. Man, I understand now why you people are so angry.”
He turned on me, furious, incredulous. “Do you? Do you UNDERSTAND? Do you understand why “you people” are angry?”
I was dumbstruck. Why was he mad at me?
He turned back on me, and took on an exaggerated accent: “O t’ank de lod fo de white man. He understan’ me. He be gonna hep me.” He looked away. “You don’t understand nothin’, man. I live like that, all the time, everywhere I go. You see it once, and you get all mad, and now you “understand”? Man, just shut up.”
Paula McClain, the internationally recognized scholar of race and ethnic relations, titled one of her books, “Can We All Get Along?”
It’s a serious question, a hard question. The answer may need to start with understanding. If nothing else, we can start with the understanding that we don’t understand, that people face prejudices that are invisible to us. Prejudice is what happens when we see others as symbols, rather than as individuals.
One of the cruelest prejudices is the gradations of caste created in people of color by the very colors that white people may see as homogeneous. The new "Yellowman" at Playmakers in Chapel Hill challenges those edges, which upon examination crumble into dust and yet remain sharp and diamond hard.
At first, I was tempted to think of Yellowman as an introduction, a way of understanding the complex self-perceptions of African-Americans.
I think that white people who see a play like Yellowman may get the sense that they understand more what it is like to be black. But nearly the opposite may be true: we don’t understand, we don’t know what it is like to be black, or some other complicated color. Like my friend’s anger, we white folk are more likely to make people of color angry when we say understand, that we feel their pain. By and large, we don’t.
Yellowman is a play about pain, about the pain of longing, but not belonging. Dael Orlandersmith’s script is long and rich, with rhythms that repeat and turn back on themselves, like the surf that pounds the Sea Islands’ shore.
It is tempting to read Yellowman as an allegory. (I’ve seen a lot of reviews that cover the basics of the play. It’s always hard to know if an author intends the particular meanings a reviewer attributes, but indulge me.) The core of Yellowman is a human story, not social commentary, but there are elements here that make us wince in recognition. All of the characters are played by just two actors, who must flit through chameleon-like changes before our eyes. Still, as I see it there are three key characters, and as in any allegory their names reveal their roles.
The main male character is Eugene; the name comes from the Greek for good beginning, or “well born.” And well-born is Eugene, favored by fate with the light “high yellow” complexion that self-hatred elevates to beauty and status in the black community. The tragedy is that to be “well-born” in this way is to invite the hatred and bigotry of all, spurned by whites as black, and envied by blacks as blessed by lightness.
The primary female character is Alma; the name means nourishing, giving us the Spanish word for “soul.” Alma has soul, she is the soul of the play. Bouyed by optimism, anchored by self-loathing, Alma's conflict is a battle for the soul of black women: do I love myself, or hate myself?
The final character is Weiss. He’s the devil, really. Weiss, or the Anglo-Saxon “white” is in some ways black, but he is a creepy light-skinned and completely amoral fellow. He plies with drink, he divides with wiles and hatred. He pours bourbon whiskey, and calls it truth serum. And, after sowing discord and chaos, he sneaks off. The white doesn’t need to hang around and admire his handiwork; he has envenomed the colors of the rainbow, and the rainbow turns inward, snake-like, eternally devouring its own tail.
Still, as I said, while there are elements of social commentary here, they are only small bones, ribs barely visible through the flesh of the play, and the people portrayed in that flesh. The performances are remarkable; I really can’t imagine more demanding theatrical parts.
Sam Wellington plays five characters, but he becomes Eugene. Because there is often no one else on stage, Wellington has to supply not just the narrative but the action, the emotional energy, for long periods. The sheer number of words, and moods, that Wellington’s characters have to span over the play’s length are impossibly difficult. I don’t see how he does more than one performance per week.
Kathryn Hunter-Williams, likewise, plays several female characters. But she grabs Alma and gets inside her. We believe completely. We accept the notion that this talented, attractive, energetic woman really does also loathe her skin, her color, her size. And, like Wellington, Hunter-Williams fills a vast emotional space.
Trezana Beverly’s direction is risky, but all the risks paid off. The play takes more than two and half hours. For at least a third of that time, there is only one actor on stage. Even with both players on stage, the temptation to embellish, to speed up, to use lights or sound to amuse, or arouse. But Beverly holds back. She lets the actors weave a rainbow tapestry, adding threads in their natural rhythm, letting the story tell itself. One scene, in particular, showed the value of a talented actor and a light directorial touch. Eugene finally fights his own father, a retelling of the timeless Oedipal tale. But of course just one actor is playing both parts. I would have helped him, using jarring sounds or startling lighting to highlight the conflict. Trezana Beverly lets her actor tell the story, as if in a reminiscence, as if in a dream, but with enough physical action that the one-person fight scene keeps us transfixed, just by using the words and the space without adornment or flourish. A lesser director would have done more. And a lesser actor than Wellington have required it. As it is, less is perfect.
By the end of the play, Alma has pulled away, physically and emotionally, from her past. She is at once proud and ashamed, both fulfilled and heartbroken. She is one of the best characters I have ever seen in theater, drawn not as a character but as a woman you feel like you know, even though you just met.
I encourage you to see Yellowman; maybe you want to see it twice. Not because you will know what it is like to “be black.” The heart of the matter, the soul of the matter, is that the more you know, the less you understand. But at least you’ll understand that.