Give her a provocative play on a controversial topic, such as intra-racial prejudice in the African-American community, and PlayMakers Repertory Company associate artist Trezana Beverley is at her best. Beverley, who imaginatively employed the African storytelling tradition to stage an especially memorable presentation of Oscar Wilde’s scandalous biblical drama, Salomé, in the spring of 2003, brilliantly guest-directs Yellowman for PRC. Beverley pours her heart and soul into creating an absolutely magical production of South Carolina-born playwright Dael Orlandersmith’s heartbreaking two-character drama about the pernicious effects of color-consciousness among blacks.
When African facial features, hair, and skin tones are despised — and when darker-skinned African-Americans hate their lighter-skinned brethren, and vice versa — their children grow up thinking that they are ugly and stupid merely because their features deviate from the family norm. The hatred — and the seething self-hatred — generated by intra-racial prejudice provides the constant background of Yellowman, whose star-crossed lovers lose their best chance at marrying and living happily ever after when an alcoholic and viciously abusive dark-skinned father, who despises his sensitive “high yella” son, finally pushes Eugene (Sam Wellington) too far, triggering a wild, drunken slugfest that gets way, way out of hand.
New York actor Sam Wellington makes a most auspicious PlayMakers debut as Eugene. He gives a charismatic characterization of the sweet, sensitive young man who loves Alma (Kathryn Hunter Williams) with a rare passion, but who ultimately tires of being his father’s whipping boy and strikes back at his perennial tormentor, with tragic consequences.
A Carrboro, NC actress and PRC veteran, Williams gives, perhaps, her best performance to date as Alma, who flees her horrible dead-end life in the Low Country of South Carolina for the limitless possibilities to “grow” in New York City. Alma has darker skin and more African features than Eugene, but she will not accept her “place” at the bottom of the social ladder and she adamantly refuses to be verbally, physically, and sexually mistreated like her abusive, alcoholic, hideously overweight mother was.
There is terrible pain and inspiring poetry in the truly memorable characters that dramatist Dael Orlandersmith creates and in the frank dialogue that she gives Alma and Eugene to express their deepest fears and longings.
Wellington and Williams not only portray the young lovers, but all their acid-tongued tormentors as well. The result is two incandescent performances.
Although dialect coach Bonnie Raphael fails to school Williams and Wellington in authentic Low-Country accents — indeed, they sound more like residents of Virginia than inhabitants of coastal South Carolina — scenic designer Robin Vest’s simple but evocative suggestion of various Low Country and Big Apple locales, lighting designer Peter West’s artful manipulation of his instruments to underscore the mood of each scene, costume designer Marion Williams’s striking array of period fashions that take the characters from the 1960s to the early 1980s, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer’s sweet original score and versatile soundscape, which underscores the action with the sounds of breaking waves in the Low Country and big-city sounds in New York also help Yellowman be all that it can be dramatically.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Yellowman Tuesday-Saturday, March 1-5, 8-12, and 15-19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 6, 13, and 20, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21117. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=31 [inactive 3/05]. The Playwright: http://www.newdramatists.org/dael_orlandersmith.htm [inactive 11/10] . The Play: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?1400032067 [inactive 8/05].
Color-consciousness in the African-American community is the thorny subject of Yellowman, an audacious new two-character memory play by prize-winning African-American actress/playwright Dael Orlandersmith. PlayMakers Repertory Company associate artist Trezana Beverley, another award-winning woman of color, will direct guest actors Sam Wellington (Eugene) and Kathryn Hunter Williams (Alma) in the upcoming of PRC production of this raw but poetic finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A South Carolina native now living and working in New York City, Dael Orlandersmith won the 1995 Best-Play OBIE Award for her one-woman show Beauty’s Daughter. The New York Times once called her “an otherworldly messenger, perhaps the sorcerer’s apprentice, or a heaven-sent angel with the devil in her” and praised Yellowman as a “landmark in theater history…. Enthralling…. Mind-altering.” And The Times of Trenton, N.J., called Yellowman “one of the most gripping, instructive, transforming hours in contemporary theater.”
African-American actress/director/teacher Trezana Beverley won the 1977 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as the Lady in Red in the Broadway debut of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. Beverley previously directed PRC’s luminous April 9-May 4, 2003 presentation of Salomé by Oscar Wilde.
Two veteran African-American actors will play childhood sweethearts Eugene and Alma, a light-skinned young man and a dark-skinned girl whose puppy love blossoms into the real McCoy. New York actor Sam Wellington will make his PlayMakers debut in Yellowman, but Kathryn Hunter Williams is a familiar face to PRC patrons. She appeared in Salomé, Our Town, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Laramie Project, Wit, and Constant Star.
Trezana Beverley says, from the time they first met as children in a small South Carolina town during the 1970s, Eugene and Alma are soul-mates and they remain soul-mates throughout their lives. Because of the alcoholism that runs in both their families — and because Gene’s dark-skinned father hates his son and anyone else with a “high yella” complexion — they become a sort of African-American Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers whom circumstances keep apart.
Beverley says, “Alma came from abject poverty; she had a mother who was an alcoholic and showed her very little love. But she was able to get herself out of that dilemma and make something of herself. Gene’s [financial] circumstances were a whole lot better; but because of the alcoholism [in his family] and his own weakness, he has problems. Gene’s father was dark and hated anybody who was light-skinned. Then, when Alma moves out of the picture [to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey], Gene falls apart.”
Originally commissioned by the McCarter Theatre of Princeton, NJ, Yellowman had its world premiere as part of the theater’s Second Stage Onstage series in January 2002. Dael Orlandersmith’s rare public examination of intra-racial prejudice among black people went on to play the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, and the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City.
McCarter Theatre dramaturg and director of new play development Janice Paran wrote, “The action of Yellowman unfolds in the 1970s on a South Carolina school playground, where, united by an affection for the Monkees, Batman play-acting, and running fast in the sticky Southern heat, Alma and Eugene quickly become friends and soul-mates. We follow the progress of their relationship through the agonies and ecstasies of adolescence and young adulthood, the joys and jolts of self-discovery, and the competing tugs of family history and hope for the future. Both are eager to re-invent themselves, to put distance between themselves and their surroundings, and to quell their insecurities about themselves and each other, only to discover how indelibly the demons of their pasts and their parents’ pasts have marked them.”
PRC guest director Trezana Beverley says, “Dale Orlandersmith paints a very plain, raw picture of both families. I like that. Within that context, she deals with the issue of color and the prejudice of color within the black race.
"I just love this play,” Beverley admits, “and I feel that it will be such a mirror to the people of the white and black race.” She also thinks audience will identify with a lot of Yellowman and subsequently be drawn into the play.
In addition to director Trezana Beverley, the PRC production team for Yellowmanwill include scenic designer Robin Vest; lighting designer Peter West; costume designer Marion Williams; and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer, who also composed an original score for the play.
Beverley says, “We have a beautiful [picture-frame] set by Robin Vest…. It looks like a Jacob Lawrence picture, out of which some of the world of these two characters sort of pops. The PRC stage is a thrust stage, and the actors need that bareness to bring the world of the play alive. This play is almost a dance between two actors.”
She adds, “You have to light this show as though you’re lighting a dance concert.” Yellowman is a memory play, Beverley says, so the moments that the director selects to emphasize must be chosen very carefully.
Beverley says, “Our costumes are designed by Marion Williams. It is one basic costume of the period [for each actor]. We’re looking at the late Sixties to early Eighties. They may [also] wear a hat or add a scarf or a sweater.
"Yellowman is written in the first person,” Beverley explains, “and both Alma and Eugene talk about their lives and the lives of the other characters, how the other characters spoke to them, what they said. It’s a narrative in the first person, there are no stage directions, and there is almost no scene breakdown. It almost reads like a novel.”
She adds, “The question [for a director] is, How are you going to frame this? How are you going to shape this? … I’m very skilled at a theatrical mode called Transformations, which I studied with Omar Shapli at the New York University School for the Arts. Omar came out of Second City in Chicago and had worked with Jerzy Grotowski.”
Beverley adds, “Being a physical actress and a physical director — and understanding how to help the actors embody the life of the play without need of much help other than a prop here and a prop there, very sparingly used —I have been able to shape a world around them that I think is pretty amazing. I think what they do as two actors on that stage is pretty amazing, too.”
Trezana Beverley says, “I compliment David Hammond for bringing this play to PlayMakers. It’s intense, but it has lots of humor in it that makes the serious issues more palatable. I think it is one of the most compelling plays about the color issues inherent in the black race…. I think it’s a very incisive investigation into this issue, and I hope plenty of African-American people of all ages come out to see it. There’s great music, and there’s even some dance in it.”
Note 1: This play contains adult language and deals frankly with adult situations.
Note: 2: PlayMakers Repertory Company and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History will host “Color Consciousness: A Symposium About Intra-Racial Prejudice, Its History, Sources, and Prevalence in the World Today,” a FREE public symposium starting at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 27th in the Paul Green Theatre. Symposium panelists will include: Yellowman director Trezana Beverley; Dr. Valerie Kaalund, director of African Women’s Studies at Bennett College for women in Greensboro, NC; and Robin Vander, postdoctoral fellow in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of African and Afro-American Studies. UNC Department of Dramatic Art professor of theater history Dr. John Harris will moderate the discussion.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Yellowman Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 23-26, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, March 1-5, 8-12, and 15-19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 6, 13, and 20, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$32, except $40 opening-night gala Feb. 26th. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21117. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=31 [inactive 3/05]. The Playwright: http://www.newdramatists.org/dael_orlandersmith.htm [inactive 11/10] . The Play: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?1400032067 [inactive 8/05].