“My mother and her mother before her believed if only they could be light, light and rich, if they could marry a light-skinned man, they’d be loved,” says Alma in Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer prize-finalist play about colourism in 1960s America. It charts Alma’s love story with her lighter-skinned childhood sweetheart Eugene in rural South Carolina. While the action is set in a place and an era far from here, the issues Orlandersmith’s writing covers are no less rampant in our modern times.
Yellowman is an expansive play that sketches through the years of Alma and Eugene’s relationship. In the playground, they chase each other and sing their way into their teenage bodies. At 14, flustered, they secretly share that they want their friendship to mean more. Finally, in adulthood, they’ve entwined deeply; their difference in skin tone, despite what they have been told, doesn’t matter.
Individually, though, the pair never lose their self-hate. Generational trauma makes Eugene, like his darker-skinned father, turn to alcohol. Alma can never forget her mother’s vicious physical insults that she was too “dark and big”; constantly scolding herself with the same taunts. Played skilfully by Nadine Higgin, she shakes as she describes her horror of seeing her naked body, tears rolling down her face.
The density of Orlandersmith’s script means the actors have to work hard to find moments of lightness. In their teenage angst, both shine – Aaron Anthony’s acting of Eugene’s newfound love for the opposite sex is gloriously clumsy. But, with uneven direction by Diane Page, the duo’s big personalities look squashed on the small, empty stage at the Orange Tree. They perform their switching monologues circling around each other, so their eyes rarely meet and their stories are kept separate. All too soon, though, the possibilities of the stage’s confines reach their potential.
It all meets a slightly melodramatic conclusion, but the world of the play is still one of believable pain. Fuelled by two terrific performances, this is a considered and timely look into the nuances of race.
At the Orange Tree theatre, London, until 8 October. Streamed on demand from 11-14 October.