Dramatic depictions and condemnations of racism are nothing new. That makes the accomplishment of Dael Orlandersmith's acclaimed 2002 play Yellowman even more impressive.
Orlandersmith works with themes and storylines that have been explored to the point that they're almost hackneyed. But with some minor adjustments and deft use of imagery and language, and by creating tangible and charismatic characters, she has refreshed the power of both the story and the statement.
Her play gets worthy handling in the current Jobsite Theater production. Jim Wicker and Fanni Green, directed by Karla Hartley, are riveting as childhood friends who become lovers, despite differences in skin color and socioeconomic class.
What makes Yellowman an effective, statement about racism is that all its characters are African-American. Wicker's character, Eugene, is a very light-skinned son of a dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother. His lifelong love Alma is very dark.
Alma grows up truly believing that her dark skin makes her ugly. She regards the light-skinned girls of her rural South Carolina town with envy and awe. Eugene, meanwhile, faces racism even from his own violent and alcoholic father, who resents that he had to work so hard while (he says) his light-skinned son has an easy life.
Friends and family of both Alma and Eugene disapprove of their friendship and romance, essentially admonishing them to stick to their own kind.
Alma eventually can't stand life at the bottom of the rural South Carolina class structure and leaves for New York City, where her mind and her senses are reinvigorated. Eugene visits often, but can't understand why she won't return home to settle down.
It is essentially the Romeo and Juliet story, but with enough twists to make it feel new. That the racism — as virulent and violent as any you're likely to see depicted on stage — is intraracial and even intrafamilial gives it added impact.
Green and Wicker are the only two actors, and as Alma and Eugene they relate their life stories, slipping into the other characters during their narration. It's often a very effective technique that invites involvement from the audience, but at other times it makes the play drag; you long to witness the action in instead of just having it related. At nearly two hours, and presented without intermission, the play doesn't really welcome slow spots.
A more significant problem is that it's awfully hard to accept Wicker as even a very pale African-American. He's a marvelous actor, a staple on local stages for many years and this is as fine a performance as he's given. But he's very Caucasian-looking, and that's a distraction when the play constantly refers to his race.
Green, on the other hand, seems custom-made for the role of Alma. Orlandersmith describes Alma in detail, and every word fits Green perfectly.
The shortcomings are minor compared to the strengths. In the end, Yellowman leaves you feeling moved, enlightened and unsettled.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.