Yellowman, Hampstead, London

Hampstead, London

After the rubbishy Fuddy Meers, this is a play to restore one's faith in American drama. Acclaimed at Liverpool Everyman theatre, Dael Orlandersmith's two-hander is as magnificently acted as it is beautifully written and offers endless insights into the internal racism and oppressive determinism that haunt the African-American community.

Two characters have been brought up in South Carolina in the supposedly progressive sixties. Alma is large, dark-skinned and part of a culture where women "tugged the soil right beside the men". Eugene is the lithe son of a lumberman father and light-skinned mother and is teased for being a "high yella" boy. Growing up in a small town where gradations of colour assume monumental importance, Alma and Eugene fall in love, separate and are uneasily re-united.

What gives Orlandersmith's play its power is the tension between self-fulfilment and the weight of the past. Alma is bright, smart, ambitious and at one point goes off to study in New York where she moves to the urgent rhythm of the city; yet she can never entirely escape her inherited self-hatred.

Equally Eugene, branded a failure by his father and advised by his grandfather "don't marry nothing dark," finds himself trapped by the antique prejudices of the unforgiving past.

Admittedly Orlandersmith brings her poignant tale to a somewhat melodramatic conclusion. But her play remains a love story packed with social information, and, in Indhu Rubasingham's delicate production, played against a battered clapboard facade designed by Liz Ascroft, it yields two perfectly complementary performances.

Cecilia Noble's Alma achieves her effects through subtle physical transitions: she transforms herself into her own mother by the simple device of wrapping her cardigan round her body and sticking out her bottom to evoke the "thick, wide body" she will one day inherit. Meanwhile Kevin Harvey as Eugene works primarily through his voice, lowering it a semi-tone to suggest his harsh father and raising it again for his quiveringly dogmatic grandad.

The two performances are a triumph in a play that is racially specific and emotionally universal in its coverage of the eternal conflict between individual aspiration and genetic legacy.

· Until June 19. Box office: 020-7722 9301.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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