Review: Trinity's Yellowman gets beneath the surface

Pride and prejudice
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 8, 2011

MAKING LESSONS COME ALIVE Christopher and Wilson Jr.

With its usual acting prowess, distilled into two characters, Trinity Repertory Company is presenting an affecting drama about black-on-black prejudice, Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman (through April 3). Its effect on us could have been far more powerful, though, if the 2002 Pulitzer finalist weren't sometimes a diatribe, hectoring us about an objection we already heartily agree with when we take our seats.

But, under director Laurie Carlos, Joe Wilson Jr. and Rachel Christopher certainly make the lessons come alive. They primarily play Eugene and Alma, tracing their lives from the time they were South Carolina schoolchildren to adults striding the streets of New York City. Other characters include Eugene's "big, dark, handsome" father, who nevertheless hates his black skin, and Alma's attentive mother with her Gullah accent from the Sea Islands.

Unfortunately, the first 10 minutes of the production consist of simultaneous dialogue — not just overlapping — that impedes our absorbing details just when we want to know as much as possible about these people.

Alma, dark and more heavyset than the actor who portrays her, is instructed as a girl that if the likes of her can marry light-skinned men, then such women will be loved. That Alma's absent father is light is a subtle reminder of the dice-throwing arbitrariness of African-American genetics. (He shows up, drunk, curious about how this one of his many illegitimate children turned out, and is disappointed.) Alma's mother puts a powdered root into her food to lighten her up, but that doesn't work either.

She tells the title character, Eugene, who lives on the well-to-do side of town, that he talks like TV, and she practices speaking like him. From their schoolyard days and ever onward, he likes her better than the long-haired, light-skinned girls in high school that he can go all the way with. Earlier the social advantage of his lightness is brought home by the dark Alton, who doesn't mind playing Robin to his Batman and whose mother (in the first heavy-handed overemphasis of the play) accuses the boy of coming to their poor house so he can feel superior. Alton's self-consciousness reveals itself to be self-loathing when he expresses dislike of blue-black blacks with the matter-of-factness of a redneck racist.

Director Carlos guides us skillfully through the ebb and flow of emotions that pulse through the action. That's evident with the first kiss of the teenaged Eugene and Alma, when a long pause and music in the background come across as natural rather than sentimental.

An emotional high point for Alma is when she goes to Manhattan on a scholarship to Hunter College, a hard-fought journey from slopping hogs every morning. The playwright beautifully conveys the glow of well-earned freedom through having her describe the lighthearted glide to her walk, which she never experienced on the farm, and which the actress joyfully embodies.

With keen creativity, Wilson establishes a touching irony in depicting one female character who now and then comes up with terrible recollections: he has her address us through an unwavering grin.

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