There have been so many plays about racism in recent years that my heart sank a little at the thought of another exploration of a topic which, while undeniably important, was bound to tread a well worn path. Well, I’m happy to admit that I shouldn’t have prejudged a revival of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman currently playing at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. For it is an intriguing piece which covers a far from well documented area, that of prejudice among the black community itself. Set in South Carolina during the racial upheavals of the 1960s, the play examines the tensions between the lighter skinned and darker skinned communities in a small town where the latter are looked down on and who live literally outside the city limits.
Though they play happily enough together at school with no real regard for their skin tones, Alma and Eugene find that as they grow older they are pressured to behave in certain ways and adopt the entrenched positions of their elders. This being the sixties they refuse to conform, establish a relationship and hurtle towards an eventual tragedy with strong echoes of Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story/Noughts and Crosses. Orlandersmith’s storyline may be that of an archetypal narrative, but the writing is vibrant enough to retain interest and in this strong production directed by Diane Page makes much of what might be cliched in lesser hands.
There is no scenery, no props or furnishings and little concession to costuming in this stark piece of in the round staging that takes place on a bare wooden platform purportedly designed by Niall McKeever. This, quite rightly, puts a major emphasis on the story telling abilities of Nadine Higgin and Aaron Anthony playing Alma and Eugene. Fortunately, they are exceptionally good and hold an audience spellbound for nigh on two hours. Higgin blazes with energy and intensity as she brings Alma to life particularly when she escapes her abusive mother and heads for an independent life in New York where she learns to question her past and take control of her future. If Anthony seems less intense at first he really surprises in the second half as he faces up to his own abusive parent and paints a picture of a scene shot through with long repressed violence. The two actors make a formidable team giving us not only a pair of richly realised central characters but a selection of their relatives and friends who dominate their world. Situation and mood are effectively conjured with the subtle lighting states of Rajiv Pattani and further enhanced by the sound design of Esther Kehinde Ajayi; both transport us far away from the simple wooden platform in the intimate auditorium.
Having seen and thoroughly appreciated Orlandersmith’s Until The Flood online during lockdown and which dealt with similar themes, it was a pleasure to catch up with this Pulitzer Prize nominated play in a theatre I haven’t been to for many years but where the standard is as high as I recall. It plays until October 8th and is well worth your time.
Production photos by Ali Wright
Yellowman is at Orange Tree Theatre – click here
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